If planners and architects had their way, when people start building large residential projects again they would look something like the Preserve at Rolling Greens retirement community proposed for Route 102 in North Kingstown.
Designed around a village-center concept, Rolling Greens advances a mixed-use model that departs from the sprawl of cul de sacs common to post-war subdivisions.
It also hopes to break through the development drought that’s gripped the state since the recession and left university, infrastructure and renovation projects as the only work for the building trades.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone likes it.
The 106-unit proposal, which local officials expected to receive Town Council approval last week, has faced opposition from neighbors regarding its size, traffic and commercial influence on a residential area.
Still with some design details to be hashed out, Rolling Greens has been winding its way through permitting in North Kingstown for more than two years, during which the town created a new “Compact Village District” zoning overlay spurred by development pressure for the Route 102, Route 2 intersection.
But the developer, Rolling Green Golf Course owner Mark Hawkins, and the architects at Providence-based Union Studio, see shaking up the old way of building suburbs as the point.
“In a broad sense, this is part of the same conundrum everyone is trying to deal with in developing places that were rural,” said Union Studio principal Donald Powers. “The five-bedroom colonial on 2 acres of land is a shrinking market. People are moving back to more of a village setting. But we still see the pressure to build new developments on brownfields or greenfields (previously undeveloped land) and current zoning is encouraging an outcome no one really wants.”
To create a more walkable village environment, Rolling Greens proposes to build smaller houses and pack them closer to each other and the new commercial space than would normally be allowed under local zoning.
After North Kingstown approved its Compact Village Development overlay, Union Studio redrew the Rolling Greens master plan, again, making it more compact and more closely aligned with the new zoning option.
Nestled into the southern side of the nine-hole Rolling Greens golf course, the latest plan calls for 43 two-bedroom duplex apartments, 21 one-bedroom duplexes, 20 two-bedroom single-family houses, 13 two-bedroom townhouses, three three-bedroom single-family houses and six one-bedroom live-work spaces.
Both the number of individual units in the complex and the amount of commercial space in the current plan are greater than what was in the previous, pre-CVD-district version, but the developer notes that it is the same number of bedrooms packed into smaller spaces.
Without the CVD overlay, current zoning for the Rolling Greens properties would have called for 54 single-family houses on 2-acre lots with existing commercial lots scattered in along Route 102.
The new master plan calls for 49,000 square feet of commercial space on the south edge of the complex to include tenants such as a bank, pharmacy, shops, professional offices and a new Oatley’s restaurant.
The businesses will be set back from Route 201, instead of fronting it, along a parallel internal road somewhat like the retail in South County Commons in South Kingstown.
An advisory group of Rolling Greens neighborhood supporters and opponents recommended cutting the commercial segment to 32,000 square feet, which promises to be a point of negotiation going forward.
While reducing the number and size of shops at Rolling Greens could ease traffic concerns, Powers said making the commercial area too small could turn it into a token business center without the “critical mass” needed to attract activity.
Central to the “smart growth” appeal of building more compact, mixed-use projects is the idea that a smaller footprint will leave more land open and undeveloped.
This has given rise to the “conservation subdivision,” concept, where new construction comes with agreements to reserve an adjacent, usually larger, piece of land undeveloped.
In Rhode Island, Union Studio has been a leading proponent of these kinds of projects, with Sandywoods Farm in Tiverton the most recent and prominent built example.
Also in North Kingstown, Union Studio designed the master plan for the Slocum Farm project on Dry Bridge Road, an agricultural-conservation development in which new homes would support the preservation of a working farm.
Although approved by the Planning Commission last December, work on Slocum Farm has yet to begin.
Rolling Greens could be considered a golf-conservation model with a compact mixed-use development financially supporting, and leaving space for, a course that might normally be turned entirely into single-family lots.
Of the 132 acres within the Rolling Greens properties, the master plan calls for approximately 90 acres, including the golf course, to stay untouched.
While new development has been almost nonexistent since the recession, Hawkins sees an untapped market among retirees for new smaller homes in North Kingstown and is “ready to build” once he gets approval from the town.
Hawkins said he isn’t sure yet whether the homes in Rolling Greens, intended for seniors, will require age restrictions.
In some ways, developments like Rolling Greens represent a compromise for both smart-growth advocates, whose first choice would be urban “infill” projects, and as suburbanites more comfortable with no new construction or traditional sprawl.
“I think if you asked most architects, they would wish we are only building in the city, but that is not the way the world works,” Powers said, “and unless you want to leave it to people who don’t care, you have to get your hands dirty.” •