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IN-PROGRESS: The Bleachery Complex Mixed-Use

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Developing smart in Lonsdale

The Bleachery complex is eyed for mixed housing, retail and recreational uses.

BY ELIZABETH GUDRAIS Journal Staff Writer | January 20, 2005

LINCOLN -- In the 19th century, the Blackstone Valley's entrepreneurs rushed to snap up desirable stretches of river and build worker housing so they could start turning a profit.

Two centuries later, the wide open spaces are gone, and the name of the game is no longer fast development. It's smart development, remaking the factories and tenements of yesteryear into modern businesses and housing that present-day residents will find attractive and useful.

The Lonsdale Bleachery complex is the latest target for that approach. A 2003 study paints a picture of a dynamic complex with a mix of housing, restaurants, retail stores, and recreational uses: a canoe launch, access and parking for the Blackstone Valley Bike Path, a visitor center, serene areas for reflection, and a connection to the nature preserve at the former Lonsdale Drive-In site.

Next, consultants will flesh out the specifics in a redevelopment plan. On Tuesday, the Town Council awarded that project to a partnership between Lincoln-based Pare Engineering and Cumberland-based New England Economic Development Services Inc.

"I can't wait till this project starts," Albert V. Ranaldi Jr., Lincoln's planner, said. "Everyone's excited about this project."

The bleachery site is part of Lonsdale village, a textile complex and surrounding mill village straddling the Blackstone River, with components in Lincoln and Cumberland. The mills and housing were built in the early and mid-19th century by the Brown and Ives families of Providence.

Today, about a dozen businesses operate in the bleachery complex. Ranaldi describes the businesses as a "mismatch" of industrial, commercial and retail uses. The largest mill building, in the center of the complex, stands vacant. The plan calls for saving this historical building, and demolishing some other, more recent buildings to let light and air into the complex.

The bleachery project coordinates with other redevelopment efforts in the area, including the bike path, the drive-in theater nature preserve, and the renovation of early 19th-century mill houses in Lonsdale village into affordable housing.

Lincoln's affordable-housing plan designates the bleachery site as another desirable site for affordable housing, and suggests adding 135 housing units there.

But the bleachery site presents some unique obstacles for redevelopment. The complex contains no public infrastructure. Several property owners within the complex each owns the road in front of their property, so the town doesn't have authority to go in and fill potholes, let alone make road improvements necessary to make the complex attractive for new development. In addition, an extensive system of pipes and drains, which once supplied water power to the mills, flows directly into and out of the river with no pollution controls in place.

To tackle these obstacles, the town intends to form a redevelopment agency, an appointed board with the power to override zoning code.

The board would oversee the project and market it to investors and developers. It would have the power to issue bonds on behalf of property owners to finance improvements, and could appoint full-time staff members if needed.

State law gives cities and towns the power to create such boards for the express purpose of coordinating development of properties where significant legal or financial obstacles exist and private development is unlikely to occur. Burrillville created one to redevelop the Stillwater Mill site in that town.

The board will consist of five volunteer members appointed by the town administrator, Ranaldi said. He said the town would look for residents with expertise in relevant areas such as development, real estate, historic preservation, and banking.

Before that happens, Pare Engineering and New England Economic Development Services will author the redevelopment plan, which will cost $24,000 and take about nine months. Ranaldi said the consultants would hold public meetings to gather input.

The town has already received a $12,000 grant from the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor to cover half the plan's cost, and Ranaldi has applied to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation for another grant to cover the rest of the cost.

Once the plan is complete, the chief costs to the town will be to create public infrastructure: sewer and water service and roads. Developers will bear the brunt of the cost.

Ranaldi said it's anyone's guess whether a single developer will step in to lead the redevelopment effort, or multiple developers will each carry out a small piece of the project. As for the businesses currently operating at the bleachery site, Ranaldi said the town would like to see them stay if they fit the plan. If not, the town will offer them help in relocating, trying to find suitable new homes within Lincoln, he said.

From The Providence Journal

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