RWU expansion plan prompts noise, traffic concerns

Town Council approves zoning change to allow university to absorb former Maher Center on Metacom Avenue ·

The Bristol Town Council agreed to amend the town’s Comprehensive Plan last Wednesday, allowing a small expansion at Roger Williams University.

The campus will absorb the former James L. Maher Center on Metacom Avenue, on two acres of land on the northern end of campus. The school plans to use the now vacant building for classrooms, offices and storage, and is in discussions with U.S. Sailing, the governing body of the sport of sailing, to establish an office in the building, according to Pete Wilbur, vice president for university outreach and engagement.

“We see this as an opportunity for a strategic partnership benefiting both the university and the town of Bristol, reinforcing the history of Bristol as the center of sailing and creator of premier sail craft design and fabrication,” Mr. Wilbur told the council. 

Roger Williams needs town approval for the plan, which requires a zone change from the current residential low density the land carried for the former adult daycare center, to Educational Institutional zoning. The zoning change requires the council to amend Bristol’s Comprehensive Plan, which it did 4-0 last Wednesday night (Councilman Halsey Herreshoff recused himself because he owns land abutting the area). A second vote on the issue is needed before it is finalized.

Mr. Wilbur stressed that the Maher Center building will not be used for dormitories, attempting to allay the concerns of surrounding neighbors who often complain of noise coming from campus. Council Chairman Nathan Calouro read from a letter sent by an Ambrose Drive resident, complaining of loud music, late-night volleyball games, and cars racing in and out of campus. The resident, Jean Motta, wrote that the noise is particularly bad during large campus events, especially graduation.

“The sound from the area can be compared to a riot,” she wrote.

Shawn Williams, who lives on nearby Griswold Avenue, also noted the noise coming from campus, and complained of visitors who cut through campus to head to the waterfront in the area. She said she regularly shoos people away from her property, and cleans up trash and leftover fires visitors light along the beach. She requested the university install a gate near the Maher Center property it keep people out.

“They make a little more noise than the cows that used to be there when I was growing up,” Ms. Williams said of the students on campus.

Police Chief Josue Canario confirmed the complaints he said neighbors of Roger Williams lodge all the time. There is also a real concern about traffic in the area, he said.

“It’s an ongoing issue that continues to grow. We talk about it every day,” Chief Canario said, adding he plans to meet with the director of campus security to address the noise and traffic problems. “You can only put so much air in a balloon before it pops.”

The traffic problems will only exacerbate when Roger Williams completes its planned residential expansion on campus, the chief said. The university also plans to build three new dormitories to add 157 beds to campus. The work would be done in three phases, beginning with a 40-bed addition in spring 2017. 

“There are only three ways in and out of the town,” Chief Canario said. “I think we need to look at the traffic impact — three buildings, 160 beds. Do the math with vehicles.”

All the dorms will be located down the hill from Metacom Avenue in the “Bayside” area of campus, Mr. Wilbur said, away from area residents.

“All are designed to bring more students onto campus from in town,” said Mr. Wilbur, who added the school plans to discontinue using the Almeida Apartments on Bayview Avenue as dorms, “but that will take time.”

In the meantime, the university is trying to work with residents to allay their concerns. The school is conducting a traffic study to determine the impact the new dorms will have on Metacom Avenue. Mr. Wilbur also said the school would look at instituting a community service project to clean the beach area along Griswold Avenue, similar to an existing program for the area under the Mt. Hope Bridge.  

Roger Williams has scheduled a university abutters community meeting Oct. 12, 6:30 p.m. at Alumni Admissions Center. The meeting, to which 300-400 nearby residents are being invited, will specifically address noise problems on campus and ways to work with area residents. 

“We hope to get into an engaging conversation with the folks that come so that we can take notes and construct an action plan that will get them feeling comfortable and in support of what’s going on,” Mr. Wilbur told the council.

Roger Williams University, Bristol Town Council, Maher Centr, Bristol Comprehensive Plan