Officials urge caution on Ann & Hope transformation

Officials urge caution on Ann & Hope transformation

The redevelopment of Ann & Hope is seen as important to the future economy of Cumberland, but officials say they’ll exercise great care in approving plans for a proposed residential and commercial project there.

CUMBERLAND – If history is an indicator, the proposed redevelopment of the Ann & Hope mill is in for a tough approval process.

The single greatest hang-up, based on early concerns cited by town officials and council members, is the impact of a mostly residential development on local schools.

Councilors are more leery than ever about the issue after approving past projects on promises of few additional schoolchildren, only to later see some of the town’s busiest bus stops appear near those projects, including Ashton Mill and Cumberland Crossing.

It was nearly three years ago when the council rejected relaxed zoning for Ann & Hope and other under-utilized properties in town based on those same concerns.

But, other blighted properties have now been removed from the mix, and Ann & Hope is now almost entirely emptied of tenants after its outlet shop closed over the summer. With a more narrow focus on what many see as the pivotal redevelopment opportunity in Cumberland, councilors have expressed support for allowing the project to advance.

Director of Planning Jonathan Stevens said he and his team met last week with the owners of the mill off Broad Street and offered to hold a special Planning Board meeting to review their plans, likely to be scheduled for Dec. 7 or 8. A recommendation could then go to the Town Council the next week on ordinance changes.

Stevens said the goal is to have a meeting entirely dedicated to this important matter for the future of Cumberland.

As it stands currently, owners are proposing mostly residential units with some complementary commercial uses, said Stevens. He said he expects officials to require a fiscal impact analysis by Mason Associates to determine, among other things, the impact of potential new children at Ann & Hope on local schools and the project’s potential positive and negative impacts on the local economy.

Stevens said the owners’ application isn’t yet complete, and he wants to give them the chance to present their full formal application before commenting on its merits more fully.

Of the 200 or so residential units featured in early plans for the 1886 building, the majority are one-bedroom units, with some two-bedroom units also mixed in, said Stevens. Most of the commercial space would be complementary to the residential use, he said, with amenities such as a coffee bar or takeout food establishment part of the plan.

Ann & Hope owners are seeking an amendment to the town’s comprehensive plan for a special mixed-use overlay district for their properties, as well as an ordinance change related to zoning.

The owners have sought approval for just about every allowable potential use, but Town Solicitor Kelley Morris Salvatore has said the administration would like to see them narrow those down to give a better indication of what they actually plan for the property.

Incoming District 1 Town Councilor Jim Metivier said the town really only has one chance to get this plan right and reinvigorate the area. “A bunch of apartments with school children is not ideal,” he said, as the school system is burdened enough.

Metivier said he’d like to see a true mix of businesses, including restaurants. One constituent mentioned a senior living community, he said, and he could see that working as well if it’s done correctly.

Right now it’s hard to guess at the merits of the plan before it’s fully presented, said Metivier.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu said she thinks the upcoming process will help to vet the proposal and ensure that it’s in alignment with what the community needs. She said she expects a lot of that important work to happen at the ordinance subcommittee level after the Planning Board passes along the plan.

“I think we’ll get there when we get there,” Beaulieu said. “It’s obviously a national treasure here in Cumberland, so we want to get it right.”

She mentioned how the town has had some successes with past similar proposals, including at the Berkeley Mill.

Ordinance Chairman Scott Schmitt said he expects a lot of work and many studies needing to be done to get this proposal across the finish line. He said he’s not opposed to rezoning the property, but said it needs to be done with caution and knowing all of the potential impacts.

“There is a large number of unknowns,” he said.

Children who would move in here would attend B.F. Norton Elementary School, he said, and that school is close to capacity.

Another issue to be hammered out, said Schmitt, is inclusionary zoning, or whether the town will require a certain number of low-income and moderate-income units.

According to the latest HousingWorksRI factbook, Cumberland is 530 affordable units shy of meeting the state’s 10 percent goal for each municipality, or at 6.14 percent.

Schmitt said this represents a great opportunity to boost the entire area, but said it’s way too premature for the council to consider a vote up or down.

“We don’t have any of our questions answered,” he said.

Councilor Mike Kinch echoed the sentiments, adding that he was really hoping for a greater share of commercial uses to lift up the area, particularly with the ongoing transformation of the Broad Street Corridor.

“I just hope that we can curb the residential,” he said. “My thought is we should get as much commercial as we can.”

Comments

I would prefer to see something along the lines of the F1 place on Higginson Ave.

I think having more commercial destinations is a must, less residential as the potential impact on schools will be detrimental. I hope there can be some sort of agreement, we are a town quickly moving towards city status with all of this building and we need to keep ourselves that town we love.