A century ago, the intersection of Park and Phenix Avenues was the center of the city of Cranston. Government offices were nearby and commerce began to spring up along the main roads of the Knightsville neighborhood.
Somewhere along the road, that development slowed, and in the process, residents and city officials fear the area lost its identity. They’re hoping to get that identity back through a Cranston KeepSpace program that targets the redevelopment of Knightsville.
“I think there’s already an identity there that you have to recognize. Really, it’s an Italian neighborhood, and not just an Italian neighborhood but an Itrani neighborhood,” said Salvatore Mancini, who lives on Flint Street.
Mancini would know. He’s from Itri, Italy, and sitting in the Sprague Mansion last Wednesday, he says he hopes to highlight that link between Cranston and its sister city in Italy.
“I love Knightsville. I like the idea of working with the Itrani theme,” he said.
Mancini was one of roughly two-dozen residents and business owners who attended the first public meeting for the project, run by consultants from the Horsley Witten Group. The study area is centered at the intersection of Park and Phenix, and moves one-quarter mile in every direction.
“The theory says that’s what a walkable village is,” explained city Planning Director Peter Lapolla.
Phase one of the project targets Knightsville. The next phase would include Cranston Print Works.
“It’s like two bookends. If you create two strong anchors, then in between will take care of itself with our encouragement,” Lapolla said.
In the research phase of the current project, senior planner Nathan Kelly said they have been orienting themselves to the Knightsville area and identifying both strengths and weaknesses.
The Italian heritage, he said, is one of its biggest strengths. Its weaknesses, however, include an aesthetic disconnect from that heritage.
Some of the older buildings in the area, built in the early 20th century, provide a visual framework for what the planners believe could be the future of Knightsville. Along Cranston Street, businesses like Antonio’s, Fred’s Place and Café Itri are set close to the street with brick sidewalks and parking either on the road or behind the buildings. Newer buildings have been set back significantly from the road, with parking in front and closed facades, like most strip malls, which Kelly pointed out is not as inviting a set up.
If a new business wants to open on Cranston Street, though, reducing setbacks and shared parking is not compliant with current zoning regulations, despite the fact that the majority of the area is zoned as C2 or C5 commercial.
“The relief mechanisms to do that are fairly onerous,” Kelly said. “We don’t have to start from scratch, but we need to get that back.”
He said that changing regulations for new businesses would not necessarily be met with resistance, because he has found that business owners and residents are open to regulations when the process is clear and simplified, especially if the idea is to improve the area.
Kelly compared photographs of sidewalks in Knightsville. Some cement walkways do not fit with the overall aesthetic at all, and even brick walkways can be improved if greenery is given space to flourish. He also discussed opening up the bike path, making connections to businesses so the track is more usable.
Parking is another thing that the consultants believe should be looked at – particularly allowing businesses to share lots to promote traffic between companies and reducing paved surfaces.
“The details do make the difference,” he said.
What he hopes to create is an “experience” in Knightsville, “so that the business owners, the homeowners and visitors know that they’ve arrived and they take pride in that.”
Adding on to the Itri theme of the meeting, Joseph Agresti, who lives in the area, said brick sidewalks and open facades with outdoor seating would encourage foot traffic, much like Main Street in East Greenwich. He says outdoor cafes in Itri, where his family is from, are always busy in the summer.
“Everybody’s outside and everybody’s talking to each other. That’s the kind of environment I would like to see,” he said.
Agresti added that lighting is crucial to this plan, both for aesthetic purposes and for encouraging walkers.
“The lighting, I think, is very important because you want people to feel safe,” he said.
Mancini agreed that these types of changes could get people back into the neighborhood.
“There’s also a social aspect to it,” he said. “Somehow people got into their homes and they forgot about the walking and talking.”
Other ideas Mancini suggested include wrought iron fencing, more greenery and grouping of the historic markers and monuments in the area, which he feels are too scattered. Eventually, he would like to see a historic archive of the area, on display either at the Knightsville branch of the library or at the Sprague Mansion.
Joseph McFadden, who owns Joe’s Place Perfume and three other properties in the area, joked that he got a head start on these ideas, recently adding attractive burgundy awnings to his buildings and improving the facades.
“I think I jumpstarted your project,” he said.
McFadden suggested that bringing events to the area could also increase foot traffic and give a boost to area businesses. The gazebo, he said, is a natural space for outdoor concerts, for example.
“You could bring so much more entertainment there. It sits dormant. That’s your draw right there; if you want to bring into the neighborhood, you’ve got to give,” he said.
John Micheletti, whose brother owns Antonio’s, pointed out that the restaurant has likewise made improvements, but questioned how the same could be expected of all businesses if the work is done on their own dime.
“I’m sure everybody’s got good ideas. The whole problem is money,” he said. “Where will the money come from and how can each individual benefit?”
Former Mayor John O’Leary wonders the same thing. His administration also tried to make improvements to the Knightsville section of the city, but when he left office, the plan did not continue.
“They’re all good thoughts here; it all comes down to where is the money?” he asked.
Mayor Allan Fung conceded that Cranston is “strained with resources,” but said that some KeepSpace money is still available. Through this planning stage, approximately $70,000 of the $137,000 grant will have been utilized. Another $40,000 is slated to go to Print Works. The remaining money could be directed for project implementation, and the city plans to look for additional funding sources.
Cranston could offer incentives for businesses. Larry DiBoni, the city’s director of economic development, pointed to the micro-loan and revolving loan programs as options for funding improvements, but said they could also go to the City Council to discuss tax incentives or credits.
“A tax credit may make more sense for the little guy,” Agresti said.
Kelly stressed that the improvements suggested in the final proposal would not be mandatory for existing businesses, though.
“We’re very much aware that this costs money. On that level, the regulatory packages are essentially optional. The goal is not going to be imposing a new set of zoning rules that immediately puts the burden on business owners,” he said.
No decisions will be made soon. After Wednesday’s meeting, the consultants planned to regroup and further study the area. The next public meeting – the second of three – will likely take place after the holidays. The consultants will also put up a project website in that time and will meet one-on-one with residents and business owners. Fung called public input “critically important” to the project.
Steven Pilz does not live or work in the area, but as chair of Cranston’s Conservation Commission, he is interested in the redevelopment project and said he was impressed with the ideas that came out of last week’s meeting.
“I applaud your efforts,” he told the consultants. “I think it’s a great foundation meeting to set the tone.”