NEWS

Former principal planner reflects on Warwick tenure

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 9/16/21

By JOHN HOWELL Images are powerful. Lucas Murray knows that. When you see something, it's easier to understand. That's part of what makes Murray a planner. Soon after being named one of Warwick's principal planners in 2018, Murray was tasked with

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NEWS

Former principal planner reflects on Warwick tenure

Posted

Images are powerful.

Lucas Murray knows that. When you see something, it’s easier to understand. That’s part of what makes Murray a planner.

Soon after being named one of Warwick’s principal planners in 2018, Murray was tasked with envisioning new municipal offices to replace the City Hall Annex, which was evacuated after a burst pipe, ironically in the second-story offices of the planning department. The break flooded the appraiser and tax collector’s offices downstairs.

Murray pictured more than offices. Using a program, he took viewers on a virtual tour of a building on the site of the closed annex to serve as the center of a municipal complex with outdoor spaces for gatherings and activities.

The video was powerful. Those who saw it were excited. The plan showcased the city as a community that cares for its employees and a place that invests in good development. The administration, however, feared taxpayers would buck at the projected $8 million cost and the video was buried.

That’s not a first for Murray. Murray and the planning staff keep fostering a vision for Warwick. Changes are often subtle. Take the introduction of a stone wall, as will be a part of the Neon Marketplace being built at the intersection of Airport and Post Roads, or setbacks and plantings along West Shore Road plazas, or the planned entries for Rocky Point Park. It’s all part of what the planning department does as it reviews proposed developments and measures them against the comprehensive plan, an image of what the city could become.

Murray was introduced to Warwick planning as a URI landscape architecture student in 1996-97 and was recruited by former City Planner William DePasquale to return in 2018. Late last month he left the city to become director of administrative services in South Kingstown.

Numerous projects

Before leaving, the Beacon wanted to hear what Murray had to say about his experience here and the opportunities he sees for the city.

It wasn’t a long interview. The phone interrupted several times and Murray kept glancing at his watch so as not to be late for a meeting at City Hall.

With City Planner Bruce Keiser taking on the position of economic development director, the department is a close-knit team with the work being divided between four people. Dan Geagan, also a principal planner, took the lead on rezoning applications. Much of their work is outside working with developers and evaluating projects in terms of whether they conform to the comprehensive plan and city codes.

Murray took the lead in analyzing what would be involved in acquiring more than 9,000 streetlights from National Grid and converting them to energy saving LEDs. The conversion, which is in the process of happening, will end up paying for itself in less than five years. The department has also been successful in gaining grants to plant trees and build structures at Rocky Point to the acquisition of open space and projects to improve storm water runoff into Narragansett Bay.

In his Warwick job, Murray was in the forefront of working with AAA Northeast for the lease and the layout of the Saw Tooth Building in Apponaug as city offices.

“I did the talking and Dan [Geagan] did the negotiating,” Murray says with a laugh.

The splash park in Oakland Beach that is slated to start construction, design of the entry to Rocky Point Park, and design of Salter’s Grove Park also came under Murray’s purview.

In recent months, with the possibility of several proposals for solar arrays, Murray focused on a solar ordinance. He was the architect of an ordinance that the City Council put the brakes on when a group, primarily concerned with the loss of trees, spoke up. While the council granted first passage to the measure, it chose to start the process over again. Mayor Frank Picozzi aims to hold a public meeting outside of the council hearings to discuss the proposed ordinance. No date has been set for the meeting, which would be prior to City Council consideration of the ordinance that is undergoing revisions by newly named City Planner Thomas Kravitz.

Last month, prior to his decision to leave Warwick, Murray showed rather than told elected officials and those following the solar ordinance what a solar array is like. With the landowner accompanying him, Murray gave the group an up-close look at Warwick’s newest array on about nine acres in East Natick. He asked the group to listen. There was no noise from transformers.

Kevin Rossi, whose family has owned the property for years, estimated about a dozen trees were taken down with those along its fence and the Pawtuxet River being saved. Murray pointed to the plantings designed to hide the array from nearby residences as well as the decorative fencing that those attending agreed is less effective than the more commercial fencing on the rest of the lot. It was hardly all perfect, as Rossi said, while most of the area beneath of panels is grass and wild flowers. Managing the project involves problems with knot weed and other invasive species that may require herbicides to effectively control.

Murray’s emphasis on an ordinance was in large part prompted by inquiries about solar developments and that the city lacks an ordinance defining where they can build. The sticking point became the proposal allowing solar in residential areas with an overlay provision that Murray envisioned would give the City Council ultimate say, including the ability to require the property become city land and open space at the end of the array’s life, projected at 25 to 30 years.

After graduating from URI in 1998, then Warwick City Planner Jonathan Stevens offered Murray a job in the department. However, he wanted to get his license in landscape architecture and took a job with a firm in Massachusetts. He joined the Rhode Island National Guard in 2000 and was deployed to Iraq. While in Iraq he rallied fellow soldiers and with donations built a playground that was featured in a story published by the Boston Globe in July of 2006.

He returned to his job and went to Boston where he served as a project overseeing capital construction for seven years. When that job ended, Murray started and ran his own firm for ten years, leaving that to return to Warwick. Under the GI Bill he pursued a Master’s in Public Administration, which he earned at URI by attending two years of night classes.

Murray is also active in his community. He is a member of the Coventry School Committee.

Room for change

So, with such a varied background, how has Murray found working in Warwick? Murray is quick to acknowledge the committed people not only in planning but also throughout city government. He sees room for change.

“I find it challenging because I think we're a little bit dated and our systems, like the overall organizational structure, needs to be updated.”

He talks about enhanced training, investing in technology and increased pay for directors who would be hard to replace.

He finds it easy for government to become complacent, continuing to do things because that’s the way they have always been done.

“I love the people I work with, many of them, most of them are dedicated, want to do the job serving the public interest,” he said.

“If we could fix that,” he said of good training and improved systems, “I think we can improve efficiencies and get to the next level of organization.” He describes the product of government as public service, adding that the effort should be to ease the wait of those standing in line to pay taxes, to plan reviews and obtaining permits.

“You know, my opinion is everything we should do should be customer-centric. And it doesn’t matter what department,” he said.

Murray is upbeat about Warwick.

He looks for ways to bring people together and in that process make for a stronger city.

“That gets into a lot of my passions, which are renovation of parks and streetscapes,” he said.

He said he sees a lot of potential everywhere, from the city’s villages to the schools “where they see they’re trying to move the ball on the edge of educational environment.”

As for the City Hall Annex, Murray has moved well beyond the brick building he envisioned. He is excited for the Saw Tooth building and what that can mean for municipal employees and their interaction with the public.

And what of the old annex that will come down in the weeks ahead?

Well, it offers a fresh canvas for planners.

principal, Murray

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