A residential and commercial development project proposed for West Main Road was met with considerable opposition during a Middletown Planning Board hearing on April 21.
The project, which includes a 144-room hotel and 150 residential units of varying sizes, would be the largest new development taken on by the town in decades. The 15-acre site encompasses the Pottsy Field recreational complex, the Middletown Library, the former John F. Kennedy Elementary School and vacant land on the corner of West Main Road and Coddington Highway. It was purchased by the town from the federal government in 2018 for $1.3 million.
But many residents and business owners expressed concerns at the hearing, questioning the size of the development, its impact on traffic congestion and what they viewed as inadequate community space.
Instead, residents support a modern recreational facility open to the public year-round rather than a hotel on the vacant land, decrying the many former establishments that have closed over the years that have not been replaced.
“We don’t have anything for our kids and families to do,” said Karen Biastre, a Middletown resident and member of the Middletown Affordable Housing Committee. “There are 13 existing hotels and inns along the West Main Road corridor. That’s 13 in 3.7 miles. Do we really need a 14th?”
Linda Finn, former state representative for District 72, questioned the project being billed as a new town center, calling the proposed development “an island unto itself.”
“The talk of the bicycles and the pedestrian access and circulation is great,” she said. “But where I live, on Aquidneck Avenue, I’m not going to ride my bike over there . . . It is really not connecting to the rest of the community.”
At the close of over three hours of presentation and public testimony, the Planning Board voted affirmatively that the design is “generally consistent” with the town’s comprehensive community plan. The board will conduct one more meeting to identify aspects of the plan that might be amended, and to incorporate further suggestions for the developers before final approval by the Town Council.
The development team, led by Rocky Kempenaar, James Karam and Christopher Bicho, have promised the complex will bring in over $1 million in new tax revenue, as well as create a number of temporary and permanent jobs.
“Very few towns have this opportunity,” Bicho said. “Newport would never have this opportunity. Tiverton doesn’t have this opportunity. Portsmouth doesn’t have this opportunity. This is really the center of the island.”
The total cost of the project is estimated at $104.2 million, according to the development team’s planning documents. Under their proposal, the town would retain ownership of the land and enter into a long-term lease for up to 99 years.
The hotel would be built on the vacant land and include both traditional and extended-stay rooms under either the Marriott or Hilton hotel chains, they said. There would be a mix of residential and commercial buildings fronting West Main Road, with apartment buildings situated behind them. The proposal includes a 6,000-square-foot community center and calls for a common green space with an outdoor stage and a 10,000-square-foot library.
The history of what to do with the property has been a focal point of debate for 15 years, with mentions of the parcel referenced in town planning documents dating back to 2008.
The development team vowed to take public input into consideration as the plans evolve. However, they maintained the project was not financially feasible without the hotel, and said the current market conditions would support the added rooms.
“There were many good ideas [presented by the public]. And some of them will be incorporated and some of them won’t,” said Karam.
Board Chair Paul Croce asked the team’s attorney, Girard Galvin, if the elimination of the hotel was a “nonstarter.”
“My perception with working with my clients so far is that . . . this team and this project could not advance without that being part of this proposal,” he said. “It would simply not work.”
Galvin said they will digest the public input for consideration as the final plans are cemented.
“Ultimately, we hope you see this as a unique opportunity that we have to advance the town’s interest and do something meaningful with this property that is consistent with the comprehensive plan,” he said.
According to a 2021 report compiled by Discover Newport, there are currently 23 hotels, motels, inns, and other lodging establishments in Middletown, totaling 1,453 rooms.
The Planning Board recommendations now go to the Town Council for consideration before being kicked back to the board for a final review process. Interested residents may still submit comments on the town’s website.