This is the first piece in a three-part series. Read the second piece about measures to protect North End residents from the threat of displacement here. Read the third piece about efforts to build trust in the plan and its promise of equitable redevelopment here.

When you drive into Newport over the Pell Bridge, there’s a moment at the crest of the bridge when the island comes into clear view. Light dances on the water of Narragansett Bay, illuminating Newport as one city, one continuous stretch of land before you.

At the end of the bridge, however, the ramp forks and that sense of continuity fades.

“When you come off the bridge and you go to the right, that’s what’s represented as ‘Newport,’” said Nycole Matthews, an artist in the North End. “You go look up the North End of Newport, you’re going to find very little information about it. So it’s essentially erased from the map.”

Matthews lives in one of several residential communities that hug Miantonomi Park, the largest outdoor green space in the North End. Matthews has witnessed everything from public art gatherings to family reunions there, and it’s one of her favorite spots in the neighborhood.

Most afternoons, children play on the fields at the park. Adults will meet at picnic benches, or stand back and chat while their kids play. Residents say it’s the kind of neighborhood where they watch out for other people’s kids too. Often when a neighbor drives past, they will roll down their window to wave hello.

“Everyone knows everyone. The people that live here, for the most part, have always lived here or have had family that have lived here, so they’re all connected,” said resident Ellen Pinnock. “Sometimes it’s a good and sometimes it’s a bad that everybody knows everybody. But at the same time, it’s really helpful, because I know that I have certain neighbors that I can rely on if I need to.”

Pinnock lived in the North End as a child, and moved back 13 years ago. This sense of belonging is what she loves about her neighborhood. But for North End residents, many of whom are low-income or people of color, the neighborhood can feel detached from the larger city.

The North End is only a couple miles away from Newport’s downtown, but the Pell Bridge ramps and a connecting highway have cut the North End off from the rest of the city for a half-century. The connecting highway is 60 feet wide at some parts, and has few crosswalks. Beyond this boundary, few of the North-South connections in Newport are pedestrian-friendly. For people without cars, it can be dangerous to get from one part of the city to the other.

“North End residents, for the most part, do not go into downtown Newport,” Pinnock said. “They don’t frequent the restaurants, the shops, or any of that stuff down there. Because it’s just like a whole other world, and we do not feel welcomed or wanted there. And I do think some of that, obviously, is people and their own implicit bias. But a lot of that is also to do with the way that this area is set up. It’s totally separate.”

That’s now set to change. Last month, the Newport City Council voted to adopt a new vision for the North End, called the North End Urban Plan. The document is a guide for future redevelopment and zoning in the North End, and aims to connect the area with the rest of Newport.

“The North End Plan is something that arises from a long-time interest in potential economic development, a persistent interest in the streetscape and placemaking issues that are really important to Newport, and then...a lack of physical integration of the North End residents,” said Kim Salerno, the chair of Newport’s Planning Board.

Key to the North End Urban Plan's success is the state Department of Transportation's project to realign the Pell Bridge ramps, which finally opens the door to connecting the North End and the rest of Newport. The bridge realignment will also free up several parcels of vacant land for development.

“For a long time now, that’s been perceived as a real boon for the city, an improvement to the tax base, and an economic development potential that shouldn’t be overlooked,” Salerno said. 

Since updating its Comprehensive Plan in 2017, the city has designated part of the North End as an “innovation hub.” That means it is supposed to become a future center for jobs that will diversify Newport’s economy away from tourism. How that happens is still a subject of debate.

In the fall of 2019, the Newport City Council approved a six-month moratorium on development in the North End. The move stalled a $100 million proposal to redevelop the vacant Newport Grand Casino property into an expansive, mixed-use complex with hotels, apartments, offices, and stores. City councilors who supported the moratorium said it would give the city time to develop its own zoning ideas and seek community feedback.

In the meantime, the city hired the consulting firm NBBJ to help draft the North End Urban Plan.

The final document that the Newport City Council adopted puts forward a swath of new recommendations and design guidelines. The plan suggests making streetscapes more pedestrian-friendly. Another goal is to attract new businesses — especially ones in the Blue Economy, Green Economy, and other technology industries — that would bring higher-paying, year-round jobs for North End residents. The plan also suggests turning portions of the vacant land in the North End, including the 23-acre Grand Casino site, into open green space and more bike and walking paths.

“It would just be nice to have less concrete stuff around — where the kids can go and play, the animals can go and walk,” said Pinnock.

Yet many of these ideas are just ideas, Pinnock added. The plan is not a set of immediate projects, but a regulatory blueprint for the area, with a number of unknowns.

“I like that there are going to be some changes,” said Matthews. “I’m just not entirely sure who is going to ultimately benefit from those changes.”

The plan emphasizes equity as one of its cornerstones, especially given the “significant differences in wealth, income, environmental quality, and opportunity between the north and south sides of the city.” It calls for the creation of community benefits agreements, which are contracts requiring developers to provide certain amenities or benefits to the local community. Those benefits could include anything from a library branch, to playgrounds, to more housing units.

Some residents worry, however, that they won’t be around to see these benefits if increased property values push families out of the North End first.

“I think some people here are afraid of gentrification, because that happens, has happened,” said Matthews. “People are just concerned that it’s going to continue, and where will they go?”

It’s not enough for residents to see the benefits of development, Matthews said, if they’re not also protected from its costs.

We’ll take a closer look at the threat of displacement — and what’s being done to prevent it — in the second story in this series.


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