Kelly Fredericks, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), doesn’t see any chance of relocating the Winslow Park playing fields to anywhere but airport property in the Lakeshore Drive neighborhood.
“Our position is that we’re moving full steam ahead. We’ve gone too far to stop now,” Fredericks said in an interview Friday.
Lakeshore Drive has been the designated site for the fields, which must be moved for an extension of Green Airport’s main runway, since the fall of 2012 when the City Council signed a memorandum of understanding with RIAC. Under the agreement, the council dropped its legal challenge of the longer runway and RIAC agreed to a series of provisions, including the relocation of the softball and soccer fields.
But last week, where the fields should be relocated was raised again when Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon suggested either Rocky Point or City Park would be preferable. His reasons: Air quality and safety would be better than adjacent to the airport. Cost also appeared to be a factor, as both Solomon and Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) raised the possibility of locating the fields elsewhere when, in a presentation to the council, Fredericks revealed the cost of the project was more than first estimated. The cost has climbed from $5.5 million to $7.5 million.
Yesterday, Solomon was adamant that until the Lakeshore site gets clearance from the Department of Health and the Department of Transportation designs safe access on Airport Road, the fields would be better situated elsewhere.
“I don’t think where we’re putting them is taking them out of harm’s way. It’s the easy way to go. It’s not the right way to go. Let’s look at the options,” he said.
Solomon also brought up the issue of the cost.
“When you’re going to spend $7 million, try to look for a better location. Based on the information presented to the City Council, they [RIAC] can still do something about it. I think that design can be placed in a number of potential other locations,” he said.
Could those funds be spent on fields elsewhere?
Fredericks isn’t sure.
“We have used federal funds for this design,” he said.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who spearheaded negotiations for the airport agreement along with former City Council President Bruce Place, said City Park and Rocky Point were looked at early on. City Park was ruled out because it lacked space and the city owned 41 acres of Rocky Point. The remaining acres of the former amusement park are owned by the state.
While she thinks Rocky Point would be a great place to have fields, Vella-Wilkinson points out the land isn’t owned by the city and it wouldn’t be the city’s decision. The CCRI Knight Campus was also in the mix as a site early on, and viewed as the preferred location, but a combination of issues with terrain and control of the fields made it unviable.
Vella-Wilkinson also questions Merolla’s argument that the airport bought the Lakeshore Drive houses because of their proximity to the airport and that children would be playing in an area of poor air quality. She points out the houses were acquired because they were in a “high noise contour” and not because of air quality. And, she observed, those noise contours are projected to constrict in the years ahead.
“I personally think it [the fields] is going to increase the value of the homes in the neighborhood,” Vella-Wilkinson said. “This is going to be gorgeous.”
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur said Solomon’s Rocky Point suggestion was a surprise to him. He questioned whether the state would develop league fields at the park.
Apponaug Girls Softball league president Robert Chevien said he was surprised that other locations are being suggested for the fields now.
“Where were these two councilmen two years ago when this thing started?” he asked.
With 90 percent of the Lakeshore Drive fields design completed, construction is slated to start in the spring. The fields are to be ready for play in 2015, so that the existing Winslow Park can make room for a relocated Main Avenue. Moving the road is required to extend the main runway to 8,700 feet. That project is projected for completion in 2017 with, as Fredericks says, the first takeoff occurring on Dec. 7, 2017.
Resolutions docketed by Solomon call for a DOT traffic study of the use of the existing maintenance service road, which intersects with Airport Road, as access and egress to the fields, and a study from the Department of Health.
“I’m requesting additional information from the state.
Maybe they’re not putting them in harm’s way. I could be wrong, but let the experts tell us. We have to do our due diligence,” he said.
As for whether he agreed to the Lakeshore Drive site when he signed the agreement with RIAC, Solomon said, “Maybe I made a mistake signing the MOU.”