Despite earning preliminary Planning Commission approval for a mixed-use development on Phenix Avenue, the developer for the Lodges at Phenix Glen - The Procaccianti Group - still has a battle ahead of them. At a special meeting of the Cranston City Council that lasted nearly four hours, residents continued to express concerns about the impact the project would have on quality of life in western Cranston.
"It was a great place to raise a family. My feelings now are starting to change a little bit," said lifelong Cranston resident Vincent Cullen. "People come and people stay, and I think to come in and make some of these drastic changes ... my suggestion would be not to approve it as it stands today."
At last Wednesday's meeting, a petition was presented to the council with the signatures of 115 residents who oppose the proposal - including members of the Cranston Intelligent Development Committee (CIDC) that formed in part to fight against proposals like The Lodges and its predecessor, Phenix Terrace.
Despite that, only 40 or so attended the meeting. Several speakers touched upon the fact that the meeting was scheduled during school vacation, an inconvenient time for families. They said the timing impacted attendance, but Council President John Lanni assured the audience that at least one more public hearing would be scheduled prior to a vote.
At the follow-up hearing, residents will not have to wait through a presentation by TPG. With its panel of experts, The Procaccianti Group testified on the proposal, potential traffic impacts and more, speaking from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in the Cranston East auditorium.
If approved, The Lodges at Phenix Glen proposal would create its own mixed-use planned district for the area, requiring a zone change approval from the city.
The development, located off the Route 37 ramp before the Cranston Veterans Memorial Ice Rink, would include 7,200 square feet of commercial space, 192 residential rental units and a resident-only clubhouse and swimming pool.
The site would include 407 parking spaces total and 55 percent of the site would be landscaped or open space, in part to accommodate an existing wetlands, for which the developer has designed a culvert crossing.
If approved, sewer changes would be needed to accommodate the added flow. The most likely option would be that the developer install a line underneath the Route 295 interchange, using technology that would avoid highway excavation.
Designer and architect Duncan Pendlebury said the facility would blend in to the area as well, using style elements "that imply quality," including roof shapes and porches that mimic residential design. The residential buildings would not be immediately visible from the entrance.
"The entrance to this project is a very elegant entrance but also, it doesn't take you right into the buildings. We offset the entrance so you have some buffer here so you don't really see into the development," he said.
Residential units would include studios up to two bedrooms with rents in the $2,000 range.
"There is a misconception that The Lodges will become moderate- or low-income housing. Upscale is what we do," said Michael Voccola, Esq., corporate vice president of The Procaccianti Group.
Critics aren't convinced. With a downturn economy, residents question if those rent prices are realistic. If the units don't sell, rents could drop, changing the resident population.
"One of the things that just seems preposterous to me ... 192 units with a rent of $2,000 - I know people who can't afford $2,000 mortgages," said resident Kim Bittner. "The rents will come down which will open up people to come with their vouchers from other cities and towns."
School Committee member Trent Colford, also a resident of the area, questioned if the city could convince TPG to write some sort of guarantee on revenue projections into the contract.
The projected net revenue for the project is $463,000, which is based on 100 percent occupancy, which certified land use planner Joseph Lombardo said is not all that far off.
"If they're well run and they're well maintained, they're probably going to have very high occupancy," he said.
The revenues also factor in motor vehicle taxes and education costs. City Council members Steve Stycos and Michael Farina questioned the motor vehicle figures, pointing out that there are several variables that influence the projections, namely that commercial vehicles were included in the citywide average and that snowbird residents with cars registered elsewhere could also skew the figures.
"I would suggest that that revenue number is high," Stycos said.
In terms of education costs to the city, TPG anticipates only five students per 100 units - so 10 students for the entire development. The per pupil expenditures are $15,000 on average, but the state's fair funding formula lessens the burden on districts, so TPG used a district cost of $9,000 per student.
Opponents say that estimation is low. Former council president Tony Lupino, who also served on the School Committee, added that the education costs did not factor in costs for students requiring special services or the all-day kindergarten costs that are likely to be incurred in the near future.
Lupino concedes that "it's a valuable piece of property; something needs to be done with it," but questions if this proposal is too big for the area.
House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello agrees.
"I think this council can take this project and trim it down a bit so it fits in that place. One hundred and ninety-two units scares me," he said.
Voccola counters that the development is not atypical for Cranston. In the immediate vicinity of Meshanticut Valley Parkway, he says there are 429 rental units; surrounding Oaklawn Avenue, there are another 476 units.
"The density of The Lodges is virtually no more than any rental property in the city," he said. "The overall plan is properly scaled and tailored to this specific site. The Lodges was specifically designed to comply with the Comprehensive Plan."
The city's Comprehensive Plan does identify the site as an area for potential growth. Growth, yes, but not this size of a project, says vocal opponent Fred Joslyn.
"I feel that this project is too large for the area," he said, adding that it would "have grave consequences if you approve this project in its current scale for decades to come."
Additional concerns from residents included the potential impact on property values and access for emergency vehicles. No concern was discussed more, however, than traffic.
"There is much traffic and chaos in the morning and late afternoons every day on Natick Avenue. Traffic and safety issues will get worse with this pathetic over-development. It's not the place I want to live for the rest of my life," said David Nadeau, a lifelong Cranston resident.
To mitigate traffic concerns, the entrance to the development would become the fourth leg of the lighted intersection. On the southbound approach, a right turn lane would be added, allowing vehicles to pass the left turning or through vehicles. This is a change from the shared through/right turn lane that is there now. The shared lane then would be for left turning vehicles or those traveling through the intersection.
For eastbound vehicles heading down the hill, the lanes would be re-striped, adding storage space for the left turn lane. Lanes would be re-striped going northbound, as well, getting right-turning vehicles out of the way. The timing on traffic signals would be optimized.
Together, traffic engineer Robert Clinton believes there would not be a negative traffic impact on the area.
Aram Garabedian, a trustee for the land, urged residents not to dismiss this claim.
"If they're going to fill 192 apartments … they're the ones who are going to be more involved in making sure that place is safe and the traffic moves. They'll work on it night and day," he said.
Resident Craig Bilodeau hopes the decision does not come down to dollars, though.
"I guess the people who bought houses and live there aren't investors in that community? It all comes down to dollars, I guess, not the people that live there," he said.
The issue will appear before the City Council for at least one more public hearing. If the council approves the proposal, it would appear again before the Planning Commission for final approval.
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