The essence of the Yarn Mill project is not how many, but what and who. What type of apartments will these be? Who will be renting them? There are two bad scenarios for Bristol...
Debate over renovation and reuse of the sprawling mill complex at the southwest corner of historic, downtown Bristol has unfortunately become a math problem. How many rental apartments are permitted? How many should be? What’s the square footage? What’s the right formula? How many housing units does the developer need in order to turn a profit?
The majority of people arguing over the numbers probably don’t have a good sense of what those numbers really mean — in terms of real-world impact. The number of units has become the easiest battleground for those concerned about over-development and impact on the surrounding area, but can they really quantify how an additional 20 or 30 apartments will impact life in Bristol?
Most cannot. Most make arguments that, while grounded in numbers and ordinance, originate from the heart.
The essence of the Yarn Mill project is not how many, but what and who. What type of apartments will these be? Who will be renting them?
There are two bad scenarios for Bristol. In the first, a developer invokes state affordable housing laws to trump all local zoning codes, pushes through an overly dense development, and packs in as many low-income renters as possible. That is not the case here.
In the second, the developer creates lovely, waterfront apartments one mile from a bustling university and rents to college students who overcrowd the spaces, host regular parties and generally overwhelm the complex. That’s the big fear at Yarn Mill. As much as college kids are not in the developer’s plans, fair housing laws prevent discrimination, so the risks are real.
As this project moves to Bristol Town Council review, both the council and public should focus less on the number of units and more on the what and who. What are the town codes governing the number of renters in a single unit? What are the restrictions that could be set in place for Yarn Mill? What assurances can the developer provide regarding future use of those apartments? Who will be marketing those apartments? How will they be furnished? What have they learned from their experiences at the Tourister Mill in Warren that can provide assurances about the rental market here in Bristol?
If they can renovate that unsightly behemoth that obscures an entire block of Bristol Harbor waterfront, and turn it into something attractive, useful and economically vibrant, it will be good for this community. If it creates any new public parking downtown, opens more public access to both the waterfront and the water, and attracts more commercial tenants to downtown Bristol, it will be good for this community.
If it becomes a new Roger Williams University dorm, it will not be.
The town’s other option would be to reject the developer’s plans and purchase the property for itself. Tear down most of the complex, perhaps saving a portion for reuse as a boutique, waterfront hotel, and turn the rest into a public park. Imagine Thames Street with two public parks overlooking the harbor … That also would be good for Bristol.