News: Not for the Commoners

Some have to move out so Newport can move up

Oct 4, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Amy Pugh of Newport helped organize neighbors.

For 15 years Newport has been waiting for something to develop on a hillside neighborhood in the city's southeast, just off Interstate 471.

That day might be near. New stores and wealthier neighbors seem to be on the way for the neighborhood at Vine, Park and Race streets and the horseshoe-shaped Grand Avenue.

But if that's going to happen, at least a few dozen homes will be demolished to make room for the project, tentatively called "Newport Commons."

Many in this modest neighborhood — a kind of bridge between the city's poorer and richer areas — support the idea. Neyer Properties, the developer, has more than 65 percent of the land under contract to make way for a mix of stores, single-family homes and condominiums.

Some of the homeowners facing relocation are undecided but are willing to listen to Neyer's offers until they hear what they consider a fair price.

Residents just outside the project's borders have been interested in what their neighborhood will look like and how much traffic the realigned streets will bring. Among them is homeowner Amy Pugh, who helped form Citizens for Intelligent Urban Planning to let Neyer Properties know what they would like to see in Newport Commons.

So far, Neyer has agreed with almost every suggestion the group presented, including a new park to replace one that would be erased by Newport Commons, plus paths from new homes higher up the hillside to the stores.

"The developer has really been a nice guy," Pugh says.

Forcing homeowners to sell
About 15 years ago some homeowners in the neighborhood approached a developer and proposed selling their homes. That led to ideas about a larger project that didn't work out. As the years passed, other proposals failed to get off the ground, creating rumors and worrying homeowners.

This time, however, Neyer Properties has momentum. City Manager Phil Ciafardini sent out several hundred letters inviting residents to a Sept. 5 presentation on Newport Commons. If all goes well, Neyer plans to begin construction in early 2002 and finish the following spring, according to John Stevens, the company's director of development.

The next step is for the city commission to designate the area an urban redevelopment zone, enabling the city to use eminent domain to force homeowners to sell.

More than 300 people packed the Newport Fire Station to hear the presentation. Ciafardini said Newport Commons would probably include 60 new upscale residences and a "community-oriented shopping center ... something the community doesn't have right now." He showed slides of modern strip malls that could have come from anywhere in the country, apparently expecting the crowd to be impressed. They didn't seem to be.

The land has been reviewed by the Hillside Trust and approved for development, according to Ciafardini. The project will be integrated with the existing neighborhood style, and will bring new tax revenue that will benefit everyone in Newport, he said.

Worried residents huffed skeptically from time to time. Some have just bought homes in the area, unaware what they were getting into. Others talked about lowball offers from the developer and wanted to know if they would get enough to afford similar houses elsewhere. Would someone pay to help them move? And why does the city need more shopping when there are already empty stores in the Grand Avenue strip centers?

Ciafardini tried to reassure residents.

"Rules are in place for development, and this results in great projects," he said.

He cited the Newport Aquarium, Newport on the Levee and even the Comfort Suites on the river, adding that it was a much nicer versions of that hotel than is usually built.

But what if the city backs the project and the developer can't get financing, as with the Millennium Tower, which remains only a blacktop parking lot in the city's center?

"Tell us the bottom line!" one woman shouted.

"Tell us some facts," a man said. "Enough propaganda!"

Ciafardini continued along similar lines, and the crowd slowly thinned as residents took turns speaking.

Erecting another suburb
Off to the side, Vine Street resident Mark Mikulski — whose property values would likely increase if the project is built — told a reporter some Newport leaders don't seem to have the same vision for the city as some residents.

"They're trying to erect a suburb next door to us, and that's not why we're here," Mikulski said.

The city needs a nice blend of the old and the new, Ciafardini said later. Monmouth Street — the city's historic center, with small, independent businesses — is under renovation, with new sidewalks, lighting, and underground utilities. Newport on the Levee, with its Imax theater, restaurants, comedy club and bookstore, is the city's new, northern anchor.

"(Newport Commons) would be an anchor on the south," Ciafardini said, adding that part of the city is already fairly suburban.

A week after Ciafardini's presentation, Pugh asked concerned residents to go to the basement of St. John's United Church of Christ to present questions, suggestions and ideas for the project.

About 80 people attended. Most comments were about getting fair prices for their homes, not wanting to move, the need to renovate older shopping centers before building new ones, the effect on property taxes and how construction might effect traffic and noise.

Newport City Commissioner Jerry Peluso stood in the back of the room, listening. Fellow Commissioner Jan Knepshield also attended.

"It's going to be one of those things — not everyone is going to be satisfied," Peluso said.

Ciafardini said few people have attended city commission meetings about Newport Commons, and he hasn't received many calls since the Sept. 5 presentation.

Does the city need to reach out to residents more?

"I think we do as much planning, if not more, than other cities," Ciafardini said. "I think the projects speak for themselves." ©