By DANIEL KITTREDGE
A zoning amendment needed as part of plans for the proposed Topgolf sports-entertainment complex at the former Citizens Bank corporate office site on Sockanosset Cross Road has received the City Council’s unanimous backing.
The vote Monday night represented the culmination of weeks of often contentious debate over the proposed development, which was brought forward by Carpionato Group operating at 100 Sockanosset LLC.
Council members uniformly said the process left them supportive of the plans but mindful of the concerns raised by some in the community over issues such as traffic and lighting.
“This project, with Topglf coming here, really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an elected official … the jobs it’s going to create, the tax revenue it’s going to bring in,” Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas said.
Citywide Councilman Steven Stycos said while he remains concerned about after-hours lighting at the site, he is supportive of the Topgolf project.
“I think that the tax revenue is a big plus, and I also think that it might be the best place in the city for such a proposal, because it’s tucked behind a building, next to a highway,” he said.
Council President Michael Farina said the council has to “weigh what is best for the entire city” in its decision-making. He said the development will create jobs and help ease the tax burden on residents.
“[Topgolf’s developers] don’t want anything from Cranston other than some land to build an entertainment center. Then you look at what it abuts. It abuts a highway, across from a prison, next to an office building, then a road, then a Whole Foods, strip mall, then some forest, then some homes,” he said. “And while I do agree there could be impact for some people in the area of Garden City, I think the changes that they decided to make to the traffic pattern mitigate a lot of those traffic issues.”
Farina also said there will be “several more hearings” related to licensing and other issues as the project moves forward.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas said she hopes Topgolf places a priority on hiring Cranston residents. She also pledged to “work with the neighbors” to address any concerns going forward.
“I was approached by a couple of residents in my own ward, and they said to me, ‘I hope you will vote against it. This is exactly the same as Cumberland Farms,’” she said. “Well, I disagree, respectfully. It is not the same as Cumberland Farms … Topgolf is not requesting a tax break. They’re not asking for much in exchange back.”
Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley spoke of the support the project has received across party lines.
“Very seldom do we as a council vote unanimously for much,” he said. “But in the Ordinance Committee, we were able to have a bipartisan, unanimous vote, and I’m hoping to have the same thing here tonight.”
Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins framed the Topgolf development as part of an ongoing transformation in the Garden City area, which has included the Chapel View development.
“The only thing that still exists in Garden City from the time I moved in until now is Newport Creamery … we have developed, and developed, and changed those properties, for the better, I might add,” he said.
Hopkins said there have been “multiple” forums and hearings regarding the Topgolf plans, and said the council has worked to “make sure everything was transparent and clear right from the beginning.” He said his conversations with local businesses and a survey of community members through Facebook found overwhelming support for the proposal.
“All I got was, ‘Help us bring something back,’” he said, later adding, “This is good for our city, this is good for our tax base, this is good for our citizens, and I wholeheartedly support it.”
Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio spoke highly of the project’s developers.
“This isn’t the PawSox deal,” he said. “This isn’t a company coming in asking for money.”
He also spoke to the community’s concerns.
“I’m very mindful of the traffic issues because I live there. This is my ward … So I understand the problems,” he said, pledging to continue to address traffic in the area.
Topgolf’s master plan application received approval from the city’s Planning Commission earlier this month. The hope is for construction of the facility to begin later this year.
The site at 100 Sockanosset Cross Road encompasses approximately 23 acres. Supporters estimate the project will generate more than $1 million in tax revenue for the city annually.
The three-story, Topgolf facility and its accompanying range area would be located along the rear of the property near Route 37, while approximately 200,000 square feet of the more than 300,000-square-foot building that had been used by Citizens Bank would be converted into retail and office space. The plan also calls for the construction of a multi-level parking garage.
The zoning amendment approved Monday updates a set of special conditions that Carpionato sought – and the city adopted – in 2016 in advance of Citizens Bank’s departure.
Specifically, it amends the C-5 commercial/industrial zoning at the site to allow commercial recreation, cultural uses, recreational membership clubs, commercial off-street parking and electric vehicle charging stations by right.
The change also provides for a maximum accessory height limit of 190 feet to allow for the range area’s netting and poles and creates new allowances for signage.
Opponents of Topgolf reiterated their concerns during Monday’s meeting. Pauline DeRosa, founder of the Garden City Alliance, said the development “will have a negative impact on our community.”
“Your duty … is to represent and serve your constituents, and do right by us,” she told council members.
Hall Place resident Tom Wojick said members of the community had been assured in October that plans for the Topgolf facility had fallen through.
“We were left unguarded, unprotected, and we didn’t have time to respond …This is not justice for all. This is justice for business. Cranston is open for business, but it’s not open to its residents,” he said.
Others urged the council to approve the zoning change.
Barbara Ann Fenton, wife of Mayor Allan Fung, called Topgolf a “fantastic draw” for the city. She acknowledged the issues raised by residents of the area and the amount of change around Garden City in recent years.
“We hear their concerns … I think everyone’s input over the last few weeks has only made this project better,” she said.