A traffic study commissioned by Salve Regina University that looked favorably on the proposed construction of two dormitories on the campus was recently called into question by those opposed to the new residence halls.
At a special meeting of the Newport Zoning Board on Sept. 22, attorneys representing abutters in opposition to the proposal said the traffic study was incomplete and did not speak to the “true impact” of the dorms’ construction because the analysis failed to address the potential increase in commercial, ride-service and delivery-service vehicles in the area.
“Would trips actually be increased as a result of a population of 400 people coming into a very small block area that would be utilizing other delivery services to meet their needs?” asked attorney Patrick Dougherty, who is representing abutters Alan and Marilla Cervasio.
“You can’t truly say that the traffic impact that is presented in the report is the true traffic impact, because it doesn’t take into account the very real-life factor of deliveries of things such as pizza, food . . . Amazon [and] UPS [packages], and all of the other things that would be servicing an additional 400 people that are being thrust into this neighborhood,” he said.
The study was prepared by Crossman Engineering, a firm based in Warwick, and published in June 2021. It found that traffic in the area of the proposed dorms would not substantially increase because of the construction. In August, Gordon Meth, a civil engineer based in New Jersey, testified that the study significantly underestimated the traffic impact of the proposed dorms and said that the methodology used by Crossman Engineering was flawed because it based its findings on a formula that equated the number of students in the dorms with the total number of parking spaces.
Elizabeth McChesney, a project engineer at Crossman Engineering, defended the report, saying that it was Meth’s process that fell short.
“I believe our report is more reliable,” she said. “Mr. Meth’s trip-generation analysis doesn’t consider that juniors will be on campus. Crossman’s is based on actual counts. It’s based on the Salve Regina campus and considers the information needed for this development. Mr. Meth’s does not.”
Despite the difference in methodology, neither found that the minimum number of new trips generated by the proposed construction were enough to trigger a comprehensive traffic analysis as required by professional planning standards. But that did not stop lawyers representing opponents of the proposal to harp on the fact that the study failed to address the potential impact of increased commercial traffic. McChesney said such data is never calculated as part of a standard traffic analysis.
“Why? Because you don’t want the board to know the traffic impact?” asked Dougherty.
After a lengthy back and forth between McChesney and Dougherty, Zoning Board members asked McChesney if the study showed a traffic increase meeting the standard, which is about 100 new trips per day, and what additional factors would be studied in the resulting analysis. McChesney said accident data, sightlines, vehicle speeds and other topics would be addressed.
The special meeting also saw abutters and nearby property owners testify in opposition to the dorms, with most focusing on the impact to quality of life and the surrounding neighborhood.
“This is not about the students; this is about the money that will be generated by these massive dorms,” said abutter Marilyn Hall of Ruggles Avenue. “If there was a real concern for these students, then Salve would have had the city construct sidewalks for the students who live on Ruggles years ago.”
“You cannot just stick gigantic buildings into currently shaded corners or onto a spreading vista of the sea and claim that you have not changed the area beyond the sited descriptions of the historic registries,” said Mary Emerson, who also lives in the neighborhood. “Salve’s campus may have reached its saturation point.”
Salve Regina University President Kelli Armstrong was also present, and testified that undergraduate enrollment will stay at the same number of students if the dorms go forward, as the university is making accommodations, like decreasing capacity in other dorms, in preparation.
Armstrong agreed traffic was “an issue” on the campus, and said the university has advocated for speed bumps to be installed, but the city has been slow to respond to the request. She said the dorms would not increase traffic substantially in the neighborhood.
A large public concern was what the dorms would be used for during the summer when classes are not in session. When asked to guarantee the dorms would not be rented to a third party, Armstrong said she could not do so.
The Sept. 22 meeting was one of two recent hearings, each in excess of four hours, as the board hopes to wrap up the years-long saga. The previous night, the board considered testimony from consultant Edward Pimentel that Salve’s application was “defective” because the construction of the dorms would require additional variance and special-use permits that were not requested by the university, namely, more than one residential use on a singular parcel.
At that meeting, the board also heard from residents and abutters who testified that quality of life would be negatively impacted.
Attorney William Landry, representing the university, said nearby residents never had a guarantee that a new dorm would not be constructed near their homes because Newport zoning law allows for such a use in the area.
The university has been undergoing a municipal process with its application for the construction of the new buildings since 2017. Proposed are two dormitories to be built in the Ochre Point neighborhood; one a 214-bed facility on Victoria and Lawrence avenues, and the second a 196-bed building on Ruggles and Lawrence avenues.
A final public hearing is slated for Oct. 13.