The Story of the Big Blue Bike Barn: A Vacant Lot Transformed
Newport Housing Authority, Bike Newport, and Achieving the Community Dream
Bike Newport’s HQ is in downtown Newport, on Broadway, opposite city Hall. It’s a thriving location that attracts people of all ages, cultures, and bike interests. Bike-happy kids love to visit and tinker and build and ride. They arrive and depart with enthusiasm and a wonderful spirit of independence. But the busy-ness of downtown does not support or embrace their varying levels of confidence and skill. We need to create big open fun space away from the traffic congestion and car-centricity where these young people can be curious, adventurous, and safe.
Over the past three years, the Newport Housing Authority and Bike Newport together dreamed and created a new space for a variety of healthy activities for the families of Newport’s North End neighborhoods – and beyond. Together with numerous and generous partners, we’ve built a thriving hub of bicycle activity that continues to evolve and emerge. We have gardens for community planting and growing, trails into Miantonomi Park, gathering spaces, and lots of equipment and experiences to share. We run biking and hiking programs and a Summer Bike Camp for local youth. Programs are provided free of charge, and in English and Spanish. Situated on the edge of Miantonomi Park, our trails connect to the park’s interior paths, monuments and play areas. This year, in 2021, we will construct a 1/2 acre children’s Trail Track where kids of all ages can have fun on bicycles far away from streets and traffic. We’ll also construct the 900 sq ft wooden canopy that will provide respite from sun and rain, channel and collect rain water, support solar panels, and be a crowning feature of this amazing and beautiful outdoor space. The canopy is the contribution of “Freedom by Design” – the Roger Williams University chapter of the American Institute of Architectural Students. Their design schematic is included at the end of this post.
The Big Blue Bike Barn campus is the combined dream of the residents, the promise of the Newport Housing Authority’s land, the generosity of numerous enthusiastic partners, and a new home for Bike Newport’s expanding programs and advocacy. Community collaboration is the heartbeat of the Big Blue Bike Barn.
In November 2017, Bike Newport brought 27 Newport community leaders to Providence to experience the “Red Shed” in Riverside Park, Olneyville. Built and run by the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, this attractive community space includes parks, gardens, paths, and a bicycle activity center. Riverside Park is in the heart of a richly diverse and densely-populated mixed market residential community – similar to Miantonomi Park in the heart of Newport’s North End neighborhoods. Standing in the park, alongside the bikes and gardens, Bike Newport’s Executive Director, Bari Freeman, posed the question: “What might the Newport version of the Red Shed and gardens be?”
At the time, Bike Newport was operating a popular “Bike Library” where kids could borrow bikes and ride around the neighborhood. It was housed in a dilapidated old shipping container in a parking lot, sited between two dumpsters, with no exterior identifying features. Stuffed to the brim with energy and excitement, it was lonely and indescript when not in use. Yet, whenever the doors of the Bike Library opened, the bikes and tools and obstacle courses spilled out, and the neighborhood swarmed with happy two-wheeling kids. The need to upgrade was palpable, and many community partners were thinking along with us.
Before the visit to Riverside Park, we had asked the residents of the North End to consider and share with us their thoughts about biking. The discussion took place at a community “Creativity Lab” facilitated and captured by our partners at Newport HEZ (Health Equity Zones). The context of the conversation included many equity issues, including both transportation and recreation. A very consistent response was shared by the participants. They wanted bicycles in their lives, as long as these three needs were addressed: 1) equipment “We need bikes”, 2) education “We want instruction on how to ride, especially with cars,” and 3) places to ride close to home “We want to build our confidence before we venture farther.” These three requirements, which applied to both the adult residents and their children, align with Bike Newport’s mission and programs – addressing community, education and advocacy. With partner assistance, we were poised to help meet these requirements, and get more people on bikes. The visit to Providence catapulted the response.
Newport Housing Authority Executive Director, Rhonda Mitchell, was one of the cohort who visited the Red Shed. Familiar now with the need, the resident input, and the model at Riverside Park, she could imagine a central space for bikes and gardens in the neighborhood. She considered a vacant lot belonging to the Authority that might serve the purpose well and knew that Riverside Park had been a vacant lot once, too. While not in use for housing, this property could be transformed for public use in partnership with Bike Newport. The case was easy to make, and the decision was made relatively quickly. 20 Sunset Blvd, formerly Fahey Street, was designated as the new home of the expanding Bike Library. Within weeks, the metal fencing disappeared and work began – to clean, clear, level and build program spaces and paths for the youth and families of the neighborhood and beyond.
The site evolved and now includes three converted shipping containers – two larger containers hold bicycles and program equipment. A smaller container holds equipment to maintain the on-site community gardens. One of the containers is beautifully muraled – designed by artist Joanna Read and painted by numerous community volunteers. To many, it is the identity of the Big Blue Bike Barn! The program area is furnished with modular tables and benches fabricated from locally sourced wood thanks to the Rhode Island Foundation, who are also funding upcoming solar power and rainwater collection. In the works are a glorious 900 sq ft canopy designed by the students of Roger Williams University School of Architecture, and a half-acre children’s Trail Track of dirt and sod funded by the national organization People for Bikes. Site planning is donated by Cordtsen Design of Newport.
The food and pollinator gardens are exciting additions to the Bike Barn campus. Newport Housing Authority and Bike Newport partnered further with Aquidneck Community Table to build a 600 sq ft enclosure for growing herbs and vegetables, and for expanding program to include gardening, farming and conservation. Here participants, their families and nearby neighbors help cultivate, harvest, distribute and use fresh healthy garden produce.
Thanks to the generosity and vision of the Newport Housing Authority and the planning, fundraising and facilitation of Bike Newport, a one-acre previously empty lot on Sunset Boulevard is now a public space for biking, hiking, gathering and growing. It is a place of pride for the neighborhood residents and a place of fun for all who use it. The “Big Blue Bike Barn” welcomes people year-round.
The list of collaborators and supporters on this project is long. Funding has been provided by Newport Hospital’s Powered by Prince Fund for a fleet of youth bicycles and by Citizens Bank / LISC Growing Communities Award for the Summer Bike Camp. Programs for women and girls are underwritten by the Miss Swinburne Fund. The City of Newport assists with cutting trails that connect the Bike Barn campus to the interior paths of Miantonomi Park, with trail surface improvement funded by the Merritt Trust of Aquidneck Land Trust. The City is further working on trail and tree signage to enhance the experience for people biking and hiking the park’s trails. The people of Newport raised funds to build the recreational Trail Track for children to play and practice their bike skills, further supported by the national organization People for Bikes.
Other partners and supporters are generously helping to make the extended Bike Barn campus happen, including: the City of Newport, Bazarsky Family Foundation, the Kaminitz Family Foundation, People for Bikes, Aquidneck Land Trust, Rhode Island Foundation, RITBA Foundation, US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, van Beuren Charitable Foundation, Commerce RI, the Gruben Foundation, EJMP Fund for Philanthropy, Preservation Society of Newport County, Newport Health Equity Zone, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, Roger Williams University/Freedom by Design, Cordsten Design – Spencer McCombe, Joanna Read – Artist, AARP-Rhode Island, Newport County YMCA, Gambrell Landscaping, Sunbelt Rentals, UG Nasons, Reynolds DeWalt and Standard Modern, Fab Newport, Lucy’s Hearth, Newport Public Schools, the Boys and Girls Club, Salve Regina University, Durham Bus Company, East Bay MET School, Fab Newport, Gambrell Landscape, Newport Solar, Rockstar Painters, New England Mountain Bike Association, Newport Working Cities, and many members of the extended community.
Together, we are committed to a campus and programs that can remain active without interruption by minor weather patterns – thus the protective canopy designed by the students of the Roger Williams School of Architecture. While this construction is in the works, we erected a seasonal 800 sq ft tent which protects from strong sun and light rain. With the tent in place and the architectural canopy coming soon, year-round activity in this green open space is underway. In addition to Bike Newport participants, hikers, bikers, climbers, gardeners, bird watchers, and other groups of friends, neighbors and families use the area to meet, gather, recreate and explore the neighborhood, the park, and its history.
During the pandemic, the Big Blue Bike Barn provided an ideal space to keep our young people and families active and to provide safe socializing during the pandemic shutdown. With the help of a Take It Outside Grant from the State of Rhode Island, we provided ongoing COVID-safe programs: a free Summer Bike Camp for neighborhood youth, weekly small gatherings for adults learning to ride or getting back on a bicycle, an outdoor “Open Garage” with rolling workstations for residents to keep their bikes in good working condition, and the return of youth obstacle courses in the area now reserved for the future children’s Trail Track. Additionally, this site is the starting point for numerous small group gatherings and group rides – including the ever-popular AARP-sponsored Full Moon Rides.
The Big Blue Bike Barn is lauded as a model of what is possible when agencies collaborate and share a range of resources – human, financial, equipment, information, and land, among others. Funders are extra supportive when they see the efficiencies in purchases and partnerships. The participants benefit from the intersection of numerous programs. The list of partners and funders involved in the Big Blue Bike Barn is long because the proposition is compelling and because we together deliver on the promise of making the most of limited resources. The Big Blue Bike Barn is a vibrant happy place of activity, pride and enthusiasm. It is only possible because of the vision of the Newport Housing Authority to put vacant land to use for the community. The time will come for that land to be developed, but in the meantime, it is making many lives happier and healthier.
For more information, please contact:
Bari Freeman, Executive Director, Bike Newport email@example.com
Rhonda Mitchell Executive Director, The Newport Housing Authority firstname.lastname@example.org
To support our work at the Big Blue Bike Barn – please donate here – and tell us your reason for giving in the donation form. Thank you!