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Abutters: 30-unit riverfront plan is too dense, deprives city of open space

October 25, 2013

PAWTUCKET — Branch Street, a quiet road with a half-dozen houses located near the Blackstone River and the Pawtucket Water Supply Board’s treatment plant, is slated to get a 30-unit affordable housing complex.

While the project, sponsored by the Pawtucket Citizens Development Corporation (PCDC), is awaiting final approval from the city on zoning issues, it appears to have support from many city officials and board members. Yet, a couple that owns a multi-family house next to the wooded lots where the complex will be built is angry about the proposal, and claims the city is overlooking their concerns about too much density and the loss of open riverfront space.

According to PCDC officials Nancy Whit and Andrew Pierson, the housing will feature three buildings at Branch Street and East Street containing a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments (two will be handicapped accessible). Whit categorized the project as being “affordable housing for working families” with rents of between $700 and $850 a month. The housing project is being funded through a combination of private and public investors.

According to Planning Director Barney Heath, the project has received approval from the Riverfront Commission and conditional approval from the Planning Commission, with some minor issues left to be resolved such as landscaping and storm water runoff.

The proposal still faces another public hearing for a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals for dimensional relief for parking and having more than one building on a lot. However, it appears to have cleared most hurdles in the permitting process and looks to be on track for final approval, with construction set to begin in about a year.

Unhappy with the plan are Steve and Deb Foisy, who own a multifamily apartment house at 48-50 Branch St., directly abutting the proposed housing site. Although now living in Seekonk, Steve Foisy said he is a Pawtucket native and longtime resident who has owned the rental property since 1980.

Foisy said he is concerned about the number of units, saying the density will change the now-quiet street for his tenants. He said he would rather see single- family homes built on these lots, instead of 30 low-income rental units.

Moreover, Foisy said he objects to the construction on the wooded riverfront lots, and questions why both city officials and the Riverfront Commission are so agreeable to the housing project.
“I thought they were trying to protect the river area. Save the river and protect open spaces,” said Foisy. “With all the old mill spaces and vacant property in this city, why do they have to build here? Is this the best they can do for the river?”

Foisy said he can’t figure out why the Riverfront Commission, in particular, went along with the idea. “Once this riverfront property is taken, there will never be open space here again.” He said that he and his wife spoke against the project at the public hearing, along with another resident who was not an abutter, but who echoed their concerns about preserving the riverfront space.

Heath said the project involves land that is owned by the PCDC and another parcel that the agency has an option on through the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency. He said the project was discussed by the city’s Riverfront Commission last week and the building design was given the go-ahead. A public hearing was also held recently with the Planning Commission, and Heath acknowledged the concerns that were raised by the Foisys and another city resident.

“This plan preserves a good portion of the riverfront area,” said Heath. “The housing is going up on Branch Street with the parking lot below.” Plus, the area by the riverfront will be preserved because DEM will have jurisdiction in terms of this.”

Heath added, “It is my belief that this project doesn’t take away from the riverfront. It might make that area more desirable and less subject to illegal dumping.” He added that the PCDC has a proven record with the city in building affordable housing that is both attractive and well maintained.

Nancy Whit, executive director of the PCDC, stated that the housing complex will have a positive impact on the neighborhood. “That property right now is in rough shape. There has been lots of dumping of trash and litter. This project will be a significant improvement and will help revitalize the neighborhood,” said Whit.

As to Foisy’s complaint about losing riverfront access, Whit said there will actually be more of it when the project is completed, because the apartment buildings have been situated to allow for open space to accommodate the East Bay Bicycle Path to run by the river. There is also a buffer zone along the river required by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). “We’re not impeding any access from East Street to the river, and we’ll be improving existing public access,” she stated.

Pierson added that while the site is empty now, older city records show that there were once numerous structures there, both residential and commercial. He said the site actually comprises 11 real estate parcels, with seven on Branch Street and four on East Avenue.
As to the concerns about too much density in the neighborhood, Pierson said the proposed project is within the legal limits that the city’s zoning ordinance allows, and is actually less dense than the maximum requirement.

City Council President David Moran, the councilor for that district as well as a member of the Riverfront Commission, said he had spoken with the Foisys about their concerns. However, he said he agrees with the proponents of the project that the housing will serve to enhance the neighborhood rather than detract from it.

Moran said he has met with PCDC officials on the project, has seen the plans, and has toured the site. He said that the Riverfront Commission also discussed the matter fully. He said the housing appears to be within the legal zoning requirements, and contains provisions for preserving access to the river.

“At this point, I’m satisfied as the district councilor,” said Moran. “From looking at the plans, I think it will be a good fit for that area. In my opinion, it would be a major improvement to what is there right now.”

Moran added that when completed, the project should offer residents greater opportunity to enjoy the river, particularly with the bike path. “Hopefully, this will bring some more exposure to that area. It’s a beautiful area, but forgotten,” he said.


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