Johnston Planning Board gives $300M retail distribution center initial approval

THE PROPOSED DEVELOPMENT of a retail distribution center in Johnston gained preliminary approval on Tuesday. / COURTESY JOHNSTON PLANNING BOARD

JOHNSTON A $300 million retail distribution facility proposed for Johnston was outlined in greater detail on Tuesday, in a hearing before the Johnston Planning Board.

The project, being built for an as-yet unidentified company, would cover about one-third of a 200-acre site, including a six-story building and an 1,800-space surface parking lot for employees.

The project, at 2120 Hartford Ave., would create about 1,000 full-time permanent jobs, as well as several hundred professional positions, according to a presentation by the project attorney, John J. Bolton, a partner at Providence-based Hinckley Allen. It is proposed for a site zoned B3, which allows retail distribution by right. “This is the first step of a multi-step process,” he said. “This is under Rhode Island law a conceptual review of the project.”

The applicant is Bluewater Property Group, a New York-based industrial real estate development company. Its partner, Don Chase, said the review was expected to take several phases. He referred to the business operator as “our confidential client.” The goal is to gain permissions for the 3.8-million square-foot project over the next two years, he said, with an opening in the first half of 2023.

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Following a two-hour public hearing, the Planning Board agreed to allow the development proposal to move forward under unified development review, giving it conceptual approval. The applicant gained approval for dimensional variances, to allow a building height up to 120 feet. In doing so, the Planning Board found the project was consistent with the town’s zoning ordinance.

Who will occupy the massive retail distribution center?

Retail giant Amazon Inc. is expanding its fulfillment centers across the country to expand its distribution network. But the development team would not identify the client by name on Tuesday. The project documents refer to it only as ‘Project Schooner.’

In a statement Wednesday, the company said, “Amazon has a policy of not commenting on rumors or speculation. The company is constantly investigating new locations to support the growth and increase the flexibility of its North American fulfillment network to address customer needs.”

Mayor Joseph Polisena, asked recently by the Providence Business News if the project is for Amazon, has said he doesn’t know.

According to the plan, the retail distribution center will require two access roads onto Hartford Avenue, a short distance from Interstate-295.

Thom Deller, the Johnston town planner, responding to comments posted online during the Zoom meeting, said the R.I. Department of Transportation would review the traffic plans but his office presumed that two new stoplights would be required. The business is expected to operate on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis, Deller said, again responding to questions posted by commenters.

The proposed development site now has a solar power array on it, which would have to be relocated to another site to make room for the distribution center, according to the project engineer.

In public comments, several residents expressed worry about the truck traffic, light intrusion on neighborhoods and the height of the building.

“The lights are going to be shining on the bedrooms at back,” said Sam Sasa, who lives near the site. “We know it’s going to be Amazon. … Don’t let the big guys step on the small guys.”

Sean Connor, who lives on Byrd Street in Johnston, said he was concerned about the truck traffic accessing the western entrance into the site. The facility will have 73 bays for tractor-trailer trucks.

“I live on Byrd Street and I‘m above Hartford Avenue,” Connor said. “Am I going to be looking out my window at the top of their building and the lights glaring?”

Not all residents were opposed.

Michael Sabitoni, a Johnston resident and a construction trades leader in Rhode Island, said all major developments that have happened in recent years in Johnston have benefited the town.

“The ability to have a development like this… find a way so we can have this project developed, [and] create the jobs for the men and women who I represent who will build it,” he said. He said the unions had received a commitment that they would be involved in the project.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.

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