Newport and the future of Planning II: “City Presents Challenges for New Economic Director”

While Newport has been dealing with winter blizzards, behind the scenes, forward progress has been occuring on various planning efforts which will hopefully have impacts on the physical design of Newport in this (and future) summers.  After a long absence in the post of Director of City Planning & Zoning since the position was terminated on July 5, 2012, there will soon be someone overseeing the planning and development of Newport on city staff.  At the time the Director’s position was eliminated the City Manager indicated an interest in replacing the position with a Director of Economic Development and a search process was begun.  There was an annoucement made by the City last week that a search process has now been concluded and that Paul Carroll was selected from the 54 candidates that are reported to have applied for the job.  Paul Carroll has a wide ranging resume having worked from Beijing to Boston.  His most recent position was as the cheif executive for the Plymouth, England City Development Company.  Mr. Carroll lives in Warwick, Rhode Island so he is familiar with Newport and the state’s challenges.

The big question as Mr. Carroll begins his new position is “Does Planning serve economic development or does economic develop lead city planning?” As the new Director of Economic Development starts his work on February 28, it is important that he will recall that what makes Newport different from other communities is its authentic, historic character, which can’t be faked or fabricated.  The policies that may have worked for other communities cannot be applied to Newport without careful consideration of the unique character and concerns of a city so rich in architecture and history.  These precious resources are easily lost to blockbuster projects (like America’s Cup Boulevard) and are nearly impossible to restore once damaged or destroyed.

Some of these same principles of “building the new while preserving the old” where articulated by the community at the Washington Square Community Charrette that was conducted last October with the participation of nearly 300 Newporters who involved themselves in the process.  The Washington Square Roots initiative, a roundtable of groups and institutions that have a connection or interest in the Washington Sqaure area, has been working stadily to sort through the results of the value session of charrette to create a summary document for the city council and community as a whole.  While the final report will not be ready for another month or so, some of the preliminary results deomonstrate that these processes can and should be a balance between the best practice established in communities elsewhere married to the unique requirements and opportunities that only longtime Newporters can identify.  Although there will be much more detail in the final report, the participants in the value setting and charrette articulated recommendations that fell into four basic categories:

1. Reconnect Newport’s traditional town center back to the waterfront.

2. Enhance the Square’s historic environment to promote safety and improve daily experience and convenience.

3. Promote special events in the Square to increase economic and community activity.

4. Improve traffic flow in and around the Square to allow vehicles and pedestrians greater compatibility.

As with any planning venture, both the challenges and the solutions will be nuanced and complex.  Vehicular flow is important but so is the safety and convenience of pedestrians.  Economic activity is critical but so is preserving the historic character of this important place.  While there is much more analysis and many more recommendations thats will come in the final report, the Washington Square issues can serve as a great way for the new Economic Director to being to get to know the community and find ways to make it better without harming the strengths and assets that it already has.  It is inevitably a challenge of accommodating opposing motivations but success will help grow a vibrant, complex and interesting city – as has been occuring since Newport was originally founded in 1639.

Because of blizzard conditions, the lecture entitled “newport as a Model of Urban Living: New Lessons from Old Cities” originally schedules for Saturday February 9 was rescheduled for Saturday March 9 at 2 p.m.  The lecture will be given by John Tschurch, which is an architectural historian and the Director of Museum Affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County.  The talk is being given as part of the Newport Art Museum Winter Lecture Series and the cost to attend is $10 for Museum members and $15 for non-members.  The Newport Museum is located at 76 Bellevue Avenue, across from Touro Park.  This lecture should be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the characteristics of our community that make it such a lovely and lively place to live and work and which mark it a model for other communities around the nation and the world and perhaps the new Director of Economic Development can be in attendance to begin learning about the city he has been tasked with helping develop and improve.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historiam, urban planner, educated and practicing architect living and working in Newport.  He holds architectural degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia Universities. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, February 28, 2013.