By Justin Sayles, Staff Writer
More than 100 years ago, the Rhode Island Training School for Boys in Cranston served as a village of its own, one complete with cottages, carpentry shops and a chapel.
But today, with the site’s current owner bringing in retail and high-end condominiums, the area at the intersection of Sockanosset Cross Road and New London Avenue will be home to slightly more affluent tenants.
Developed by Johnston-based Carpionato Properties Inc., the project is built upon the existing historic structures at the site. While retail occupies the bottom floors of the buildings, residential units sit on the second and third floors.
Dubbed Chapel View, the development is an example of a growing trend in building nationwide – one that combines a mix of retail and residential uses to create a village-like environment. Sometimes called “lifestyle centers” or “open-air developments,” several of the projects have popped up in Rhode Island, including Chapel View and South County Commons on Route 1 in South Kingstown.
Developers such as Nicholas E. Cambio, principal of Universal Properties in West Warwick, have abandoned plans to build large malls in favor of the mixed-use projects. At Cambio’s 480-acre Centre of New England in Coventry, the developer had planned a shopping center with 400 stores.
As the economy softened, Universal Properties has shifted its plans, with the project currently proposed as a mixed-use center with more than 1,000 housing units.
But according to Kevin Flynn, Cranston’s former city planner and the state’s current associate director of the division of planning, municipalities will often seek mixed-use developments because the commercial aspect of the project can help to expand its tax base.
With single-family units considered a “drain” in some communities, an increase in commercial development can help offset the cost of schooling and other public services generally associated with residential growth.
“The single-family (unit) has been characterized as something that is undesirable,” Flynn said.
Roger R. Warren, executive director of the Rhode Island Builders Association, said the industry has watched the single-family home market slow down in the state, with the amount of building permits issued during the third quarter of this year hitting a 15-year low.
Warren partially attributed the dip to the resistance of cities and towns, many of which have adopted zoning policies that make it more difficult and expensive to build homes. While the association does not track permits issued for other types of developments, Warren said the idea of mixed-use and “lifestyle center” developments have become attractive to developers who look to build homes for aging baby boomers and their grown children, classified as “econo-boomers.”
Instead of spending their twilight years in retirement homes, many older people seek the village-style living environments that can include golf courses and parks, he said.
“These are the amenities that these retired baby boomers seek,” Warren said.
John Flaherty, director of research and communications for Grow Smart Rhode Island, said these types of projects can also fit into the nonprofit group’s philosophy of responsible developments and thriving communities.
The movement toward village-style communities is counteractive to policies of the post-World War II era, Flaherty said, where many towns implemented policies to control suburban growth. But many of the policies had the unintended effect of “supporting a sprawl pattern of development,” he said, by creating zoning laws that called for large-lot developments.
“It just separated people from the places they want to be,” he said.
Flaherty said Grow Smart has noted an increased interest in communities for the projects, with many incorporating an allowance for the mixed-use developments in their zoning policies.
But the trend toward mixed-use developments has extended outside of suburban and undeveloped areas.
Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr., president and CEO of Cornish Associates, has worked toward bringing mixed-use development to downtown Providence. In his renovated buildings along Westminster Street, first-floor tenants include businesses such as tazza and Symposium Books, while the upper floors include residential units.
Chace said that while Providence was successful as strictly a commercial area in the past, trends have shown that people are looking outside of the suburbs to move back into cities. The benefits of mixed-use – an extended period of activity on the street – create a “cyclical process” that helps revitalize the downtown area. The first demand was for the residential component of the projects, he said, with the retail businesses looking to move in afterward.
“If we could create demand or need for people to be there for an extended period, that tends to make the district a more interesting place to be and a safer environment,” Chace said.