R.I.’s Big Empties Leave Economic, Environmental Void

This Lowe’s store opened in January 2009 on Davisville Road in North Kingstown. It was out of business two years later, costing some 100 people their jobs and leaving behind an enormous impervious footprint that exacerbates pollution problems. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

This Lowe’s store opened in January 2009 on Davisville Road in North Kingstown. It was out of business two years later, costing some 100 people their jobs and leaving behind an enormous impervious footprint that exacerbates pollution problems. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

National retailers are welcomed with great fanfare, but those who trumpeted their arrival go into hiding when these "super" stores are abandoned and their fields of concrete left to inundate local waters with polluted stormwater runoff.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The 117,000-square-foot behemoth opened in early 2009 with plenty of hullabaloo. The developer touted the home-improvement superstore as “the latest example of the success we are seeing at the Gateway.”

Built on 72.5 acres, Quonset Gateway, both its developer and owner have proclaimed, serves as “the front door to R.I.’s largest business park, known as Quonset Business Park.”

Two years after all the Lowe’s buzz, the much-hyped Gateway anchor store closed, leaving behind an empty monstrosity and a forest of pavement. It’s been sitting vacant for nearly three times as long as it was open.

The Quonset Gateway Lowe’s, on Davisville Road, opened in mid-January 2009 and was out of business by late 2011. About 100 people lost their jobs.

Adjectives, superlatives and bravado punctuated the developer’s press release announcing the store’s opening: “celebrates another giant stride toward attracting top-notch retailers;” “dynamic regional hub of activity;” “catalyst for further growth;” “convenience and charm of the retail area;” “reflects New England style architecture;” “customers have numerous options for restoring, maintaining and decorating their homes.”

The press release also noted that the Quonset Gateway is being funded by New Boston’s Urban Strategy America Fund, an investment fund that “executes on the promise of a triple bottom line, generating solid returns to investors, spurring economic development, and promoting environmental sustainability.”

“The Quonset Gateway is a model example for the USA Fund in terms of embracing our triple bottom line philosophy, and we are thrilled that the project is moving forward as rapidly as it is,” John Dragat, chief investment officer of the Urban Strategy America Fund, is quoted. “This development actively promotes environmental, lifestyle and economic sustainability at a time when job creation and community benefits are more important than ever.”

Quonset Gateway features a department store, a supermarket, a nail salon, a beauty-supply store, a pet store, a sandwich shop and a tiny patch of green space. A bank sits amid an ocean of parking spots, and a fast-food joint is across the street. Basically, this strip mall, which opened in 2008, is the type of development that spread across the nation during the 20th century.

When the Gateway Lowe’s closed — one of about 20 in 2011 that were shuttered nationwide — bad management was essentially blamed. “The stores that are closing have not made significant progress necessary to achieve profitability,” a Lowe’s Companies Inc. spokesman said at the time.

Despite the closing of Lowe’s, the Quonset Development Corporation remained optimistic at the time about the future of the location specifically and the business park in general.

A corporation spokesman noted then that another Quonset business had recently nabbed a $430 million contract with the Navy. He said the Lowe’s closing was a sign of the times.

In the span of two short years, the Davisville Road Lowe’s went from an example of success to a casualty of changing times. It created a few hundred short-lived jobs, but the shortsighted project did nothing for Rhode Island’s environment, lifestyle and economic sustainability, except diminish it.

“Sometimes you take three steps forward and one step back,” the spokesman told the North Kingstown Patch in October 2011. “With this economy, you expect that ebb and flow.”

Lowe’s and the Quonset Development Corporation will now look for a company to take over the leased property, according to the 2011 Patch story. “It’s a desirable building in a desirable location,” the spokesman told the website.

It’s been vacant for almost five years.

The vast parking lot of another vacant Lowe’s, this one in Woonsocket, is kept clean with a leaf blower. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The vast parking lot of another vacant Lowe’s, this one in Woonsocket, is kept clean with a leaf blower. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Earlier this year, ecoRI News contacted both the Quonset Development Corporation (QDC) and Lowe’s corporate headquarters to discuss the future of the boarded-up Gateway building and its impervious-surface-covered site.

A spokeswoman for Lowe’s sent ecoRI News an e-mail on June 8. “Thanks for calling about the former Lowe’s store in North Kingstown. Lowe’s doesn’t own this property; it was leased during the time we operated a store. You would need to speak with the property owner to learn about any future plans.”

A June 16 e-mail from the Quonset Development Corporation’s hired public-relations firm read: “There’s nothing new to add to the discussion about the store right now. Both the QDC and developer of the site, New Boston, are actively pursuing new uses for the building and are hopeful a new tenant will be identified in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the developer and Lowe’s continue to make their lease payments on the parcel at roughly $280,000/year. At the same time, Lowe’s pays more than $125,000/year in property and PILOT to the Town of North Kingstown.”

A follow-up e-mail from ecoRI News asking to speak with someone further about the project’s impact on the local environment and economy was ignored.

The developer of the project, New Boston Fund Inc., answered an ecoRI News request for an interview by asking for more information about the story. After providing that information, ecoRI News never heard back from the Boston-based firm.

North Kingstown’s director of planning and development noted in a June 6 e-mail to ecoRI News that “the building is out of our jurisdiction and within Quonset’s.”

“We definitely hear a lot of complaints from residents regarding the vacant building and lots of ideas from residents as possible future uses,” she wrote.

Follow-up e-mails from ecoRI News seeking an interview to discuss the empty building and residents’ concerns were ignored.

In hopes of continuing the conversation with Lowe’s, ecoRI News sent subsequent e-mails to the spokeswoman, writing, in part, “Part of the story is about buildings, in this case, one built for a Lowe's store, being left behind when stores go out of business. There is plenty of fanfare when these projects are announced and built, but what about the shells and vacant sites left behind as community blights? I would like to speak with someone at Lowe's about this often-overlooked part of development.”

A June 14 e-mail from Lowe’s corporate answered that request in the same manner it answered our initial e-mail. “Lowe’s doesn’t own the property in North Kingstown; it was leased during the time we operated a store. You would need to speak with the property owner to learn about any future plans and maintenance of the property.”

However, the abandonment of big-box stores — not an isolated incident here, but a nationwide epidemic — isn’t a simple problem about ownership. These retail leviathans are built specifically to suit a renter’s needs. The vacant building on Davisville Road looks like a Lowe's for a reason.

Just because Lowe’s, or any other big national chain, rents the property doesn't excuse it from the role it plays on the impact these type of development mistakes leave behind. No one associated with the development, property or operation of this “anchor store” was made available to speak about the “triple bottom line” or how the “development actively promotes environmental, lifestyle and economic sustainability at a time when job creation and community benefits are more important than ever.”

This Walmart on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket has been sitting vacant for nearly five years. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

This Walmart on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket has been sitting vacant for nearly five years. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Pattern of behavior
Grow Smart Rhode Island shared its concerns about the North Kingstown project two years before the Gateway Lowe’s even opened. In September 2007 Grow Smart submitted testimony to the Rhode Island State Planning Council regarding the revised site plan for the Quonset Gateway Center project.

“Grow Smart continues to have serious concerns about this broad expanse of single-story retail. First, it is a low-density form of development that does not use land efficiently. And, as Grow Smart stated in its original testimony, ‘this relatively low intensity use constitutes a basic inconsistency with the fundamental premise of Land Use 2025 which is that we should seek to accommodate the majority of our future growth by making efficient use of the infrastructured land within the urban services boundary.’”

The state-commissioned Land Use 2025 report was released in 2006 and was touted as “Rhode Island’s plan for conservation and development in the 21st century.” The plan is typically ignored when it comes to big projects proposed by big corporations. It’s really noting more than a feel-good story.

The recently released 2015 Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan noted that “development pressures on land throughout the state are increasing.”

“The primary threat to Rhode Island’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats is conversion of land for housing, urban growth, and commercial, industrial, transportation, or recreational uses,” according to the plan.

Another concern expressed by Grow Smart regarding the development of the Gateway Lowe’s was that this single-story retail space and surrounding parking would result in a “great deal of impermeable surface.” The organization noted that QDC’s development guidelines required that not more than 80 percent of a parcel be covered by impervious surface. Grow Smart questioned whether the two-parcel site upon which Lowe’s was developed and now sits meet that percentage.

Grow Smart also noted that large national chains, with their ability to cut prices, often drive smaller local businesses out of operation and pull revenue out of the local economy.

Nearly a decade after expressing its concern about the project, Grow Smart offers this take, “By continuing with an auto-oriented development style, reliant on big box floor plates, Gateway Center is now stuck with an empty box and empty parking lot that will be difficult to redevelop. If Lowe’s found the location to be ‘underperforming’ chances are its competitors ... will find it similarly underperforming.”

The same can be said for another big-box store that sits vacant 37 miles to the north. An empty Walmart on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket is another apt reminder of how corporate chains take over the local retail economy and then relocate for a better tax deal and/or more space, leaving the landscape scarred.

The nation’s nearly 400 million square feet of vacant shopping centers and its collection of abandoned big-box stores have left behind half-empty downtowns and less-than-bustling main streets. Walmart alone has about 400 abandoned stores nationwide — some 30 million square feet of vacant retail space surrounded by thousands of acres of asphalt.

Walmart closed its 120,000-square-foot Woonsocket store in mid-September 2011, so it could open a 24-hour, 200,000-square-foot Supercenter store about 5 miles away in North Smithfield.

Across the street from this vacant Woonsocket Walmart is another empty Lowe’s. The big box has been vacant since 2013. Lowe's also left Diamond Hill Road to relocate to the Dowling Village retail center in North Smithfield. On the August weekday ecoRI News visited this deserted location, a small crew was using a leaf blower to collect the leaves that had fallen from the trees that border a sea of black pavement.