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As a Redevelopment commissioner, I was part of the process in the late 1990's that designated this area as a "Redevelopment Zone", including a plan to purchase and demolish all the structures in the area, by eminent domain if necessary. At the time, I spoke against the plan to demolish and I remember Catherine Johnson speaking eloquently about the importance of the area as an "architectural billboard" for our town, as the historic, wood-frame, working class houses are the first glimpse of Middletown as you arrive from the North -- she felt they could be restored and the highway access might be a positive instead of a negative, if the right owners and uses could be found. But there was an assumption that as the state looked at eliminating Exit 16 and connecting directly to the Arrigoni Bridge to Portland (that should be the subject for another post), there would likely be a buy-out of this neighborhood by the State D.O.T. And we all agreed that the status-quo was not good -- because of the isolation of the neighborhood, it had become a source of blight and the easy highway access provided a sort of "drive-thru" for drug dealers from outside the neighborhood, making life miserable for residents. In addition to other problems, unprotected train tracks run right through the neighborhood and lead paint falling from the bridge had contaminated a number of properties. And so it became the official policy of the City to eliminate the neighborhood through Redevelopment.
Whether for good or for worse, the State D.O.T. never came up with money to purchase Miller & Bridge. Meanwhile, the City spent hundreds of thousands of federal grant dollars buying certain properties and demolishing them, before they ran out of money and decided instead to focus the City's resources to demolishing historic houses on Ferry Street to create the Richman/Wharfside Commons apartments.
So, it's 10 years later and the Miller & Bridge neighborhood is in limbo, as the Redevelopment plan is still in effect, yet action on that plan has ceased and there is no intention to move forward with funding it. Some properties were purchased and demolished, and the quality of life did improve somewhat, but the remaining residents continue to feel that they do not receive the same level of city services, and property values must be affected by the fact that -- officially -- the neighborhood has no future. The people who live there would like to see us either lift the Redevelopment designation, or find the funding to finish the job. Either way, they would like immediate improvements to the traffic safety problem (one resident suggested to the Police that they should be exempt from tickets when they are involved in accidents on Route 9, since they frequently have to take risks just to get in or out of their neighborhood.)
The North End Action Team (NEAT) and Lydia Brewster raised this issue in the first place and have kept it on the Redevelopment agenda all these years, with repeated meetings to try to push it forward. This year, a compromise solution was approved at Redevelopment: ask the State to open the rail crossing at Portland Street for a few years, and to close the Route 9 entrance. In the meantime, perhaps try to find State funding to build a proper connection for the neighborhood from Miller Street to North Main, across the land controlled by the Providence and Worcester Railroad.
This temporary solution of opening Portland Street is understood to be a complicated proposal for two reasons -- first, it requires a special act of the state legislature, since opening Portland Street will require Miller & Bridge residents to cross the railroad tracks (which of course they already do within their own neighborhood -- and without any safety signals.) And second, St. John's Church and Portland Street residents are concerned about the social and traffic problems which might result from connecting to Miller & Bridge.
When this motion from Redevelopment made the necessary stop at the Public Safety Commission before going on to the Common Council, it was denied -- Public Safety doesn't want to open Portland Street. And Miller & Bridge remains in limbo.
And so I come to the reason for today's post on this topic: Tomorrow (June 24th) at 5:30 pm in Room 208 at City Hall, there will be a joint meeting of the Redevelopment Agency and the Public Safety Commission. I don't actually know if there will be a public session, but it should be interesting to see if we can't find a solution that brings some justice to the people in this neighborhood -- and if we can't, why not?