Change coming down the tracks
Pawtucket, C.F. seek public input on proposals for commuter rail station, Conant Thread district development
– The 150acre Conant Thread district and planned commuter rail station is being touted by officials as a once-in-a-lifetime development opportunity that will transform the area on the Pawtucket and Central Falls border into a “second urban center for the State of Rhode Island.”
Now, planners want to know what the public thinks about the project.
The district comprises 150 acres of land in both Pawtucket and Central Falls, including 4 million square feet for development, with another 4 million square feet nearby in downtown Pawtucket.
The Conant Thread district will be a “mixed-use urban village” that officials say will attract trendy restaurants, start-up businesses, economic opportunities, and public amenities.
The district’s borders stretch north to Mowry Street in Central Falls and south to Church Street in Pawtucket. Its border to the east is Dexter Street and Lonsdale Avenue to the west.
Wednesday’s public forum was held inside Isle Brewers Guild on Main Street, which is within the Conant Thread district just around the corner from the proposed commuter rail station.
Jeff Davis, a project planner with engineering consultant Horsley Witten Group of Sandwich, Mass., was at Wednesday’s forum to listen to public comment on what they’d like to see in the district. He set up a series of poster boards, on which people could place stickers next to items and amenities that interested them – such as office space, affordable housing, and restaurants.
“We’re asking people to think about the different types of uses,” Davis said.
With this information, Davis and the team at Horsley Witten Group will get a sense of how zoning ordinances should be written for the district, to meet the needs of the public and potential customer base. Getting the zoning taken care of is one of the first steps of planning for the district and Davis estimated it would be drafted by summer.
“This is the very beginning of a public process … I imagine we’ll hear about quality of life issues and economic development engines,” Davis said.
As for the 150-acre district, Davis sees huge potential in its future, saying it’s almost a blank slate at the moment.
In Rhode Island, Davis said, transit-oriented development has not quite taken off – outside of downtown Providence – and that’s why he sees so much development potential in the Pawtucket and Central Falls district.
“The asset of the train station will be a boon for businesses, a great opportunity,” Davis said.
Pawtucket Planning Director Susan Mara said that the train station will be put out to bid later this month and that’s why Wednesday afternoon’s forum was a “good time to reach out” to the community to receive some feedback on what they’d like to see in the overall district.
Jan Brodie, executive director of The Pawtucket Foundation, meanwhile, said the forum not only served as a way to find out what the public wanted to see, but also as a way to put the concept of a commuter rail station and transit-oriented development back in the minds of the public. The last public hearing on the station was nearly two years ago, and Brodie said it was safe to assume there would be questions about where the project was going.
Whether it was conversations about how pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly the district could be to discussing the potential for parking at the train station site, the intent of the forum was to allay fears that the station and district could become something that was not consistent with the mission that was stated when the project first got on track, Brodie said.
The commuter rail station will afford a direct connection via Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains to Providence, T.F. Green Airport, and Wickford Junction stations, plus multiple stops en route to South Station in Boston. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation expects to award a design-build contract for the station this summer, with groundbreaking scheduled for later this year and opening slated for 2020.
The $40 million project is funded largely through the efforts of the state’s congressional delegation to secure $13.1 million through the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program. Pawtucket and Central Falls are each chipping in $3 million.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien said there was a sense of enthusiasm inside Isle Brewers during Wednesday’s forum and part of that stemmed from the collaboration between the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls. That collaboration is seen in the formation of a joint Planning Commission between the two municipalities, which seeks to maximize the district’s potential and open opportunities for reuse of the vacant mill buildings within.
Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa said it was a testament to the work going on between the two urban cities.
“We know if it works in Central Falls, it will benefit Pawtucket and if it works in Pawtucket, it will benefit Central Falls,” Diossa said. “This is why this project is extremely important, not just the train station but the Pawsox stadium.”
An interactive website touting the district launched online Wednesday at www.conantthread.com.
A VHB rendering of the concept for the Pawtucket/Central Falls commuter rail station project.