Housing advocates blast plan at site of Cranston's former Trolley Barn

CRANSTON — Housing advocates say few things better illustrate Rhode Island's struggle to build affordable homes than the vacant lot on Cranston Street that was once home to a trolley barn and Narragansett Brewery.

As Gov. Dan McKee proposes spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build more affordable housing across the state, the Cranston City Council on Monday voted to allow the 7-acre lot to host an auto parts warehouse, bank, gas station and fast-food restaurant.

"I think we are at a point where every time we lose a parcel that could be used for dense development, we are creating more obstacles for ourselves to bring on the housing the community needs," Kristina Brown, a Cranston resident and housing and economic policy officer at the United Way of Rhode Island, told The Journal on Tuesday.

Crews demolish the Trolley Barn in Cranston in 2005.
Crews demolish the Trolley Barn in Cranston in 2005.

Cranston is the state's second-largest city, but according to HousingWorks RI, no long-term affordable housing has been built in Cranston in more than a decade.

Only 5.5% of the city's housing stock qualifies as affordable, well below the 10% target set out in state law.

The Trolley Barn property at 777 Cranston St. is the last piece of the former Narragansett Brewery complex that now includes the late-1990s Cranston Parkade shopping center to be redeveloped.

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To build suburban retail on the site, the City Council not only needed to change the zoning from manufacturing to commercial, but delete language in the city's comprehensive plan calling for a mixed-use residential-commercial development there.

The city's planning office made a recommendation in favor of the proposal, anchored by an Auto Zone warehouse, but registered a series of concerns about it.

They wrote that a mixed-use development would be "preferred" to the Auto Zone proposal, "particularly as the city is in need of housing and is running out of potential sites to meet its housing goals."

They noted the site has water and sewer access, is served by a bike path and bus routes, and that a mix of uses would not draw as many car trips.

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They said the proposed gas station "is not compatible" with the homes across the street. And "there are no sustainability or green-energy aspects of the proposal," they write.

On the positive side, they note that the Auto Zone will employ 20 permanent full-time employees and generate far more tax revenue than the property does now. No specific revenue estimate was made available Monday night.

The council voted 8 to 1 in favor of the Auto Zone proposal, with Ward 3 Council member John Donegan, who represents the district that includes the site, against it.

"Development should not exacerbate health inequities. I believe this proposal will do just that," Donegan said before the vote.

The only resident of the neighborhood to testify Monday, Grace Swinski, was against the zone change.

The Trolley Barn property is owned by Paolino Properties.

"That property has been vacant for 22 years," Joseph Paolino Jr. said Tuesday. "No one has come knocking on our doors saying they want to build housing. Not one contractor or developer has come knocking on our door."

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Council members voting for the Auto Zone zone change said the lot is too close to the highway and train tracks for housing.

"I am just not convinced this lot is the right fit for that," Councilwoman Jessica Marino said.

But Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart RI, said if the state is going to build housing, it has to start somewhere.

"The vote last night by the Cranston City Council to reverse a mixed-use zone for the Trolley Barn site is a major missed opportunity to confront the serious housing supply and affordability crisis in Rhode Island," Wolf wrote to the Journal. "The decision highlights the stark reality that the governor's proposed bold increase in housing production funding can only go so far to address our housing needs. If we are to truly meet this challenge, the state and its municipalities must be rowing in the same direction."


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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Cranston voted for Auto Zone proposal on former Trolley Barn property