Place Making Spotlight: Newport, Rhode Island

(Image courtesy of Discover Newport)

Well known for its stunning Gilded Age mansions and historic waterfront, the city of Newport, Rhode Island, boasts incredible examples of architecture and a well-documented public realm. Even with such a gloried past, however, the city today presents a mixed design picture. Its architectural landscape was significantly altered in the twentieth century as planners eschewed tradition for the latest development trends.  As a result, Newport today lacks a clear design vision without defined standards—a situation that design leaders and city officials are looking to remedy.  

Newport’s Thames Street shows a mix of design and lack of cohesive standards

To find harmony between design and development interests, Newport passed a comprehensive plan to enhance its charming development patterns in 2017. The city hired architecture staff and began providing leadership opportunities for the deep roster of invested citizens who are committed to Newport’s strong sense of place.

Two years later, Newport City Planner Peter Friedrichs participated in the first gathering of the Place Making Institute, which encouraged the further evolution of this plan. PMI participants suggested formalizing a program to give design professionals a voice in any large-scale developments. By making this feedback cycle a defined part of the process, the interests and insights of the community—which typically lacks the resources of developers who can litigate over unfavorable decisions—would become a key part of the approval process, beyond just objectors at a public hearing.

Now, in 2021, the first area plan crafted under this model is on the brink of adoption by the City Council. The proposal, which calls for the smart redevelopment of the city’s North End, a historically neglected area, introduces form-based zoning to Newport, which embraces the idea of regulating development by proportion and massing, as opposed to use and setbacks of more traditional Euclidean zoning. The plan also addresses major issues of the day, including equity, economic opportunity, green and complete streets, sea-level rise, climate change, and quality of place. As suggested by the PMI participants, the plan also includes a panel of local professionals who will provide additional training and guidance on urban design principles for developers.  As it looks to further revitalize the North End, Newport will create an innovation hub and work with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation on the realignment of the ramps of the iconic Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge. The expansive site of the Newport Grand Casino, which closed in 2018, also presents a prime development opportunity. 

Looking to the future, Newport will focus on the waterfront, where sea level rise will change the seventeenth-century development pattern. Preservationists will play a particularly important role in the evaluation and potential raising or relocating of historic structures in the floodplain. Noting the area’s appeal as a tourism destination, hotel developers are eyeing the desirable waterfront and strong community opposition to additional hotels is brewing. In addition, officials must also consider the prevalence of short-term rentals, which affects housing affordability.

The Hammetts Hotel, a recent addition to the waterfront, demonstrates the needs for collaboration between preservationists and developers

Although the place making picture in Newport looks promising, Friedrichs notes that the path forward is not perfectly smooth or defined. “Our greatest challenge has been educating the public and the city’s leaders on these national best practices and the advantages of bringing them to Newport. This is a highly attractive place to develop, even with outdated zoning and lengthy approval processes. Developers want a smoother process, not more standards. If we can achieve smoother standards with greater community oversight it’s a win-win.”