Chuck McCaughey is relieved. Peter Frazier is ready to start working with the city and the leagues, and Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson believes it will be another “gem” in the crown of city parks.
All three are talking about the future home of softball and soccer fields that currently make up Winslow Park in the shadow of Green Airport’s main runway. If all goes according to plan, replacement fields will be ready in the spring of 2015 and without the hundreds of youths who use them missing as much as a day of play.
The new fields will be on airport property and accessible from the service road off Airport Road that goes to the airport maintenance garage and fire station.
Relocation of the fields was once a contentious issue and consensus seemed remote, but the plan appears to meet the approval of many.
For McCaughey, the Apponaug Girls Fast Pitch Softball League president, it’s the end to uncertainty and anxiety over the organization’s future.
“It’s been hanging over our head for quite some time,” McCaughey said Tuesday.
That’s somewhat of an understatement.
Where the fields would go, regardless of whether the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) extended Runway 5-23 or not, have been a hot button for years. Among the suggested sites, were RIAC land off Strawberry Field Road, the city-owned Barton Farm, an expansion of the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex and, more recently, the CCRI Knight Campus and then the RIAC land to the west of Warwick Pond off Lakeshore Drive. At one point, even Rocky Point was mentioned as a possibility.
The Lakeshore Drive neighborhood fought a proposal two years ago to build corporate hangars on the land that had been cleared of houses. The City Council shot down a request to rezone the land, even though RIAC would have buffered residents from traffic and lights and the corporations would have paid taxes on hangars little used, according to RIAC.
The area was then suggested for the playing fields, but that didn’t get much support. Concerns were traffic and the loss of an open treed area now used for walking, or just hanging out to watch the airport.
CCRI seemed like the logical solution, as it would give the college added fields while satisfying the leagues. The college was the preferred site as the City Council and RIAC worked out a memorandum of understanding that ended the council’s resistance to the extended runway in exchange for several guarantees, including relocation of the fields.
But CCRI couldn’t accommodate more than two fields, conditions were less than ideal and there were real issues over who would control facilities.
Faced with a deadline to choose a site other than Lakeshore this month, Lakeshore became the spot.
“I think the neighborhood will be pleased with the layout and the walking trails,” Vella-Wilkinson said Tuesday. She said RIAC is “sensitive to the environment” and is looking to save as many trees as possible. In addition, evergreens would be planted to shield areas from the neighbors. She said the fields would be a wonderful recreation area for the city.“We worked with Kevin Dillon [former RIAC CEO] extensively and thought that [location] was a win,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said. “The most important thing is to get some closure so we and the leagues can move forward.” Officials from the Apponaug League and Warwick Fire Fighters Soccer are scheduled to meet today with the city and RIAC to view a preliminary layout.
Frazier, acting RIAC president, said the agency is moving ahead with the design, which he described as complex and requiring delicate balance. On the one hand, he said, the neighborhood should have easy access to the site, yet he does not want to create a situation where outsiders would park on neighboring streets rather than the access road.
“We want to make sure there’s no disruption to the neighborhood,” he said.
City Planner William DePasquale agrees.
“We want the neighborhood to have access, but we don’t want it to become a parking lot,” he said.
Plans include four regulation softball fields and two smaller instructional fields; one standard soccer field and two instructional fields; a new clubhouse with meeting room and restrooms and concessions. The complex will also require work on Airport Road, including traffic signals and possibly a left turn lane for westbound traffic. All the improvements would be paid for by RIAC. The estimated cost is about $3 million.
DePasquale is encouraged by RIAC’s cooperative posture.
“Working with the community can be much better than litigating with the community,” he said.
Frazier wants to ensure the leagues won’t be left without a place to play.
“We will not bring down Winslow Park until it [the new field] is up and operating,” he said.
As outgoing Apponaug league president after eight years, McCaughey has two major concerns.
“We’re going right next to the airport and what happens in 20 years when it [the airport] wants to expand again?” he asks.
Secondly, as the softball fields host tournament play spectators, McCaughey questions whether there will be enough parking. That isn’t a problem at Winslow Park, which is in the midst of an area cleared of houses with lots of off-road parking.
In addition to the league, with about 400 girls registered for spring, the Winslow fields are also used by CCRI and Johnson & Wales and about a half-dozen tournaments are played on the fields annually.
Vella-Wilkinson is confident the fields will be a good addition to the city but she has reservations, as well.
“I don’t want the neighborhood inundated by outside traffic,” she said.