Undoing Suburban Zoning

For nearly forty years Middletown has proscribed to zoning that requires businesses to set back from the street and encouraged parking lots to be placed in front of buildings. The end result, not surprisingly, was a sea of strip malls and an ocean of pylon signs along West Main Road that created a visual cacophony. In 2008 the town revised its commercial design guidelines to move buildings to the street line and to better conceal parking but this past month, the Middletown Town Council advanced this concept further by unanimously adopting a new master plan for the area between Two-mile Corner and the intersection of Valley Road and West Main that would try to reverse the Suburban / Strip Development precedent over time.

In reality, much of the development of farmland in Middletown and Portsmouth was a result of Newport’s adoption of a very similar style of zoning on July 1, 1977. This new “Suburban Zoning,” rather than allowing the closely located, traditionally scaled buildings along the street, required that new structures generally be located in the center of large lots set back from the street. Commercial buildings were also required to have large numbers of parking spaces so newer structures became surrounded by empty lots devoid of buildings. The code seemed to give little consideration to traditional forms of design or to the comfort and convenience of pedestrians. Instead, the code seemed to focus more on the perceived needs of automobiles. This new design criteria discouraged the sort of compact construction that is typical of Historic Hill or the Point Sections of Newport and it is now estimated that about 80% of all Newport properties are “non-compliant” to the current zoning code in one way or another, meaning that it is difficult to add onto or modify them without applying for zoning or special use variances. The net result of this was that much of the residential and commercial construction that might have happened in Newport was pushed up to Middletown and Portsmouth, resulting in the widespread strip development that has occurred in the decades since the new zoning ordinances were implemented.

The type of “Suburban Zoning” that led to the development of West Main Road has been on the decline in the opinion of most urban planners for a very long time but it is often hard to change a system that is in place as people fear change. The focus of most urban planning in the last decade or so nationwide has been on trying to reverse the effects of zoning codes put in place in the 1970’s. This means returning buildings to the street front, establishing more traditional forms of development and reducing (or eliminating) onerous parking requirements.

For the last six months the firm of Vannesse Hangen Brust (VHB) has been working with Middletown planners and citizens to create a new master plan for the area along Route 114 as it passes through Middletown. This effort has been called the “West Main / Coddington Center Master Plan” and was financed jointly by the Town of Middletown, the Newport County Chamber of Commerce and the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission.  Renderings of the preferred scheme show development that looks much more like what was built on Broadway in Newport before the 1977 Zoning was put in place—wide sidewalks with buildings on the street. This project is an exciting opportunity to create a sense of “town center” from what is currently not much more than an anonymous route from one place to another. There are still many obstacles for the implementation of this plan (zoning codes must be modified, sites must be acquired and funds must be raised) but even the work of undoing thirty years of suburban style strip development starts with a single step!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, October 20, 2011.

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